You Can be Kind Without Being "Nice"

Have you ever heard someone say that someone else was "too nice"?  How could that be?  I mean aren't we supposed to be nice?

I believe the problem is in the way our culture uses the word "nice."

Let's take a moment to look at how the word nice is defined by Merriam Webster:

nice adjective\ˈnīs\: giving pleasure or joy : good and enjoyable: attractive or of good quality: kind, polite, and friendly

Now let's look a little deeper at the definition of the word kind:

kind adjective \ˈkīnd\: having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others : wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others:  of a sympathetic or helpful nature

As you can see, these two things are not exactly the same. The word nice describes what a thing or action looks like whereas being kind describes your intent or nature.

Now there is nothing wrong with being nice if it's coming from a place of kindness. The problem arises when you are nice to the point of compromising your own principles, needs or desires. It is not kind to do something you don't want to do because you think it will make someone else happy. What is kind is doing something that makes someone happy because you enjoy contributing to their well-being.

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), has been known to say, "Please do as I request, only if you can do so with the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck." Now I'm not sure I'd take it that far because, frankly, if I did there'd be even more dishes and laundry piling up in my home than there already is. That said, I like the sentiment of it. His message is that we should do things for others because it feels good to make others feel good. We should not, however, do things out of obligation, guilt or resentment.

NVC is not about being nice for the sake of being nice. It's about assertively expressing your own needs and listening to the needs of others so that we can find a solution that works for both. That is true kindness.

There are a few key concepts in NVC that help us to communicate more kindly and more effectively.

Observations - Objective observation is the key to seeing things clearly without the filters of our thoughts, feelings and previous experiences. An observation just states the facts, i.e. "you didn't put away your dishes," without any judgment, i.e. "you are lazy because you didn't put away your dishes."

Feelings - Feelings are the tools we use to determine if our needs are being met. Good feelings indicate they are being met and bad feelings indicate that they are not. Feelings are often confused with thoughts. A feeling is something you feel inside yourself without judging or blaming other people. For example, "I feel frustrated" is a feeling, but "I feel ignored" would be a thought about the other person that might lead to the feeling of being frustrated. Another kind of thought that often disguises as a feeling is when you say "I feel that..." as in "I feel that you should have listened to me."

Thoughts - Thoughts are our own judgments of a situation. They not only sometimes disguise themselves as feelings, but they often disguise themselves as observations. An observation of "that person took my pencil when I walked away" could lead to the thought of "that person is a thief." It is important to clarify the difference between observations, feelings and thoughts so that we can move on to finding strategies to meet our needs.

Needs - Needs are universal things all humans have to have to survive and thrive. They are the driving force for all of our actions. They are not, however, the actions themselves. Ask yourself, "is this something that all humans need?" If not, ask what need it meets, i.e. "I would like you to put away your dishes because it meets my need for order and equality." If you catch yourself saying, "I need you to..." as in, "I need you to put away your dishes," it is a likely a sign you are talking about a strategy and not a need.

Strategies - Strategies are the tools or actions we use to meet our needs. There are always multiple strategies to meet our needs. For example, to meet your need for order and equality, what if your partner who always forgets to put away the dishes agreed to do the cooking or laundry if you put away the dishes. Your partner’s need for order might not be the same as yours, but if you can show where you are coming from, you can work together to find a solution. If, however, your partner feels blamed, it is more likely to cause a shut-down than to create a search for an agreeable solution.

Requests - Requests are not the same as demands. If your partner understands where your request is coming from and doesn’t feel obligated to do it, it can create a willingness to work together to come up with a solution that works for all. Requests that are assertive and clearly state your needs and feelings are much more likely to be heard than requests that are passive, aggressive or confrontational in nature.

So, if you are having a feeling that's not very nice, the kind thing to do is to share it with empathy and understanding to work together for a solution.

Photos courtesy of Guy Holtzman Photography.