Note: This was originally posted a year ago on my Patreon, but today I decided to share it on my main blog to close out the April Blogging Challenge
In the past year especially, I’ve seen a lot of online posts about racism. Inevitably, someone in the comments will say something to the effect of, “whatever, I’m just going to treat everyone kindly no matter what their skin color is.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, because if it’s that easy, then why are so many black people hurt by well-meaning white people?
This idea actually goes way beyond race. I mean, why did well-meaning people say hurtful things to me when I struggled with illness or singleness? They thought they were being kind. Why didn’t it feel like kindness?
Here’s the difficult truth: sometimes kindness is like a language that doesn’t translate. You can feel, in your heart, like a kind person, but if you don’t communicate it well, it’s like saying “I care about you” in English to a Korean woman. If the message isn’t received and decoded by her, it’s meaningless, no matter how sincerely you meant it.
In this article, I’m going to provide eight ways in which you can more effectively communicate kindness. This is not an exhaustive list, just a few things that I’ve discovered, either from my own life or from listening to others express their frustrations.
But I want to be clear, from the start, that this is not about changing your heart, it’s about changing your communication style. I’m writing this with the assumption that you are not racist or sexist, that you believe all people are equally valuable, and that you genuinely want to treat everyone kindly.
With that being said, here are some ways to better communicate kindness.
1. Defer to people’s expertise
This is something that I’ve heard women, single people, and ethnic minorities all complain about. Certain people, often (but not always) confident married white men, get asked for their opinions and expertise in a way that other types of people don’t. Often there will be someone else in the room—maybe a woman, a shy single man, a black man, or a “weird” person—who has studied this topic in depth, but their expertise gets overlooked.
If you’re part of a group that is having a discussion or making a decision, you should look around the room and think, “who is actually the expert here?” And then you should ask that person what they think.
2. Ask people about their lives
This is somewhat basic, but important. It’s good to have a fair idea about what people do for work, what they went to school for, and what their most passionate hobbies are.
Not only will this make them feel seen, but it will make you better able to defer to their expertise. And it benefits everyone—if you know who’s passionate about interior decorating, for instance, you’ll know who to call when the church bathrooms need to be re-done.
3. Believe people
Over and over, I’ve heard people who’ve experienced trauma, abuse, etc say that one of the most traumatic parts of the whole experience was not being believed.
Now, it feels weird to say “believe people” as a blanket statement, because, I mean, we’ve all been lied to at times. We all know that some people use lies to manipulate and destroy others, and we don’t want to be a part of that.
My mom has become really good at believing people, to the point that many people end up trusting her and sharing things with her that they don’t tell anyone else. So I asked her how I should phrase this section.
She told me that when people tell her things, she always starts off by fully believing everything they say. Since she’s not a judge and jury, there’s no obligation to be skeptical or to need to figure out absolutely for sure if this is true or not. So she just believes.
Later, if she finds out other information, she can always adjust her thoughts on the matter.
(I will also add that Mom does not gossip about things people tell her, and I feel like when lies are destructive it’s usually because people are spreading those lies through gossip.)
4. Let people define what is hurtful to them.
As someone who struggled with chronic illness and depression, I found it hurtful when people would say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” If you said this to me, and I called you out on it, your first response would probably be defensiveness. It would feel, to you, like I thought you were a terrible person. And you’d hate to feel like a terrible person. So your mind would rush to rationalize yourself, and you’d say something defensive like, “I was just trying to help.”
But the truth is, as the one who is struggling, I’m the one that gets to define what words are hurtful, not you. You haven’t gone through that, so you don’t get to decide what is and what isn’t hurtful for a chronically ill person to hear.
This is true for so many things. If an Indigenous person is hurt that you once dressed up in feathers and fringe on “Pilgrims and Indians day” at school, they’re allowed to find that hurtful. If a woman is hurt when you say “you’re being too emotional,” she’s allowed to. If a man is hurt when you use the term “toxic masculinity,” he’s allowed to feel that way.
Our defensive reaction comes because we don’t want to be terrible people. But the good news is, when most people say “that hurt me,” they’re not saying “you’re a terrible person.” They’re not saying you did it on purpose. Actually, they’re probably assuming that you have a good heart, or else they probably wouldn’t even bother.
Furthermore, you can still validate other people’s feelings and allow them to be hurt even if you did nothing wrong.
Short story time: When I worked for the school newspaper in college, I once made a lady very angry with something I wrote in the paper. I had no clue how to handle it. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong.
The journalism advisor told me, “you just go to her and ask her how she felt, and then nod along and be sympathetic while she tells you how terrible it was.”
“But then what?” I said. “Do I have to issue a retraction or something?”
“Oh no, of course not,” said the advisor. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
This was the first time I realized that I can validate someone’s hurt feelings without admitting wrongdoing, and it was revolutionizing for me. The angry lady ranted to me, and I said “that sounds hard,” and then it was all over.
5. Sit with wordless pain
Some people are talented at this, and some people (aka me) are naturally terrible at this. But one of the kindest things you can do to someone who is suffering is be there for them without being able to “fix” it in any way. Often our minds rush to “comforting” platitudes like “God will never give you more than you can handle,” “he’s in a better place,” etc. Practice showing up and shutting up. Practice sitting with discomfort.
6. Simply apologize
The frustrating thing about life is that there is literally no way to always say and do the right thing. For instance, I found the phrase “God will never give you more than you can handle” to be hurtful, but some people legitimately find it comforting.
Sometimes you will hurt people out of your own pain, and sometimes out of your own ignorance. Sometimes you’ll say or do something that would be completely innocent to 99.99% of people, but it will trigger a wounded person in a way that seems completely irrational. Sometimes people just are extremely sensitive. Sometimes people demand an apology out of their own entitlement, or because they’re trying to manipulate you.
But in most cases, a simple apology is the easiest way to communicate kindness. No explanation or defensiveness, just “I’m sorry I hurt you.” Apologizing doesn’t even always mean that they are “right” and you are “wrong.” It just acknowledges that their hurt was real and legitimate, even if you privately think it might be a bit irrational.
7. Give people opportunities to say what they think
In a group setting, take note of who speaks and who doesn’t. Particularly pay attention if people get talked over, interrupted, or seem like they’re just about to say something when someone else cuts in with their idea.
Then, be the one to say, “I think Sandy had something to say,” or, “what do you think, Bill?” or, “You kind-of interrupted Sandy,” or “Sorry we rushed ahead to a new idea, Bill, were you finished with what you were trying to say?”
Now, some people are observers more than talkers, and might not appreciate being put on the spot. But in general, showing in a group setting that you care about people’s perspectives, even if they’re not elbowing their way into the spotlight, is a great way to communicate kindness.
I’m realizing, now that I’m at the bottom of this list, that most of the things I listed are forms of listening. It makes sense I guess—listening is the oft-forgotten key to good communication.
So that’s the thought I’ll end with: the key to communicating kindness is to have a stance of listening. Zip your lips and open your ears. People want to feel heard, and the kindest thing you can do is listen to them.
This post, as I noted above, was originally posted on Patreon. I have a Patreon account where I post bonus material–typically stuff that’s more personal or controversial, that I’m not sure I want to share with the entire world.
I want my work to be accessible to every income level, so I only charge $1 a month. If you wish to support me with more you can edit your amount at any time, but everyone receives the same articles.
I typically post twice a month, but occasionally I only post once a month. Once a post has been up for a year, I remove it.
Highlights from last year that are still up on my Patreon include:
- Adoption vs. Abortion, and Other Things on My Mind
- Finding a Church
- Is “Lord of the Rings” Sexist?
- Eight Misconceptions Mennonites Have about the Head Covering