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The Important Distinction Between Being 'Nice' and Being 'Kind'

Updated: Feb 28, 2018

Have you ever told someone that they look nice only to have them parrot the same compliment back to you? Did it make you feel good, or did you feel a little awkward because you knew they probably only said it out of obligation to return the compliment?

In contrast, have you ever had someone take a moment to really look at you and say, “Wow, you look great today?” Now, how did that comment make you feel? Probably a bit different.

Because you knew the person in the second scenario was offering a sincere compliment, not an obligatory nicety.

This is a very simplified example of the difference between being ‘nice’ and being ‘kind’: two concepts that we often confuse as the same, but are actually vastly different. And it’s important that we tease them apart.

So here’s a quick comparison. Being ‘nice’ involves telling someone what you think they want to hear, like “It’s okay that you cancelled our dinner again” to the friend who constantly flakes on your plans. Or doing something out of a sense of obligation or pressure, like volunteering at your child’s school when you’re already feeling overbooked and overworked. At it’s core, being ‘nice’ oftentimes means giving up your authenticity.

Being ‘kind’, on the other hand, involves sharing how you really feel from a place of love and compassion.

Let’s take a closer look at that flaky friend situation. By being ‘nice’ and telling her that her failure to keep plans is okay, we are enabling the behavior that we dislike, and we’re probably repressing some feelings of resentment. And we all know what happens with those feelings. We may lash out at the friend or even talk behind her back to other friends. Either way, the resentment finds its way out somehow, and it’s usually not in alignment with our values.

So how could we address this situation with kindness? We could have an honest conversation with our friend, keeping in mind that we care about her and that our goal is to spend more time with her.

One important caveat: the moment she cancels the plans may not necessarily be the best time to have this conversation because you might need to deal with your frustration or anger first. But when you’re ready, you can call her and say something like the following:

“I really love being your friend so I wanted to talk to you about something that seems to be getting in the way of our time together. I’ve noticed that the last 3 times we’ve made plans to get together, you’ve had to cancel at the last minute. I totally get that you’re very busy, but I was hoping we could find a way to make these plans firmer so that we can actually see each other.”

Then. Just. Listen.

Notice that this statement uses facts about the behavior (3 cancellations), and it talks about how the behavior is getting in the way of your valued friendship. There isn’t a discussion about how mad you’re feeling, just that you miss your friend. Both of these strategies can help to minimize any defensiveness that your friend may feel.

Now, let's tackle some other scenarios where you might agree to activities out of a sense of obligation or social pressure? Take the example of volunteering at your child’s school. Most parents feel like they aren’t measuring up to the other parents they see around them, so they feel like they need to do these ‘nice’ parenting things to feel like good parents.

But if you’re doing them for the wrong reasons, guess what, that old friend 'resentment' is going to rear it’s ugly head again. I know for me it would result in being exhausted by the end of the day or week, which means I would be cranky and less connected with my children. Or I might turn to a less-than-healthy self-soothing behavior like overeating after the kids go to bed. Either way, it can result in destructive energy and/or behavior.

So, what do you do when you’re feeling these pressures? First, be honest with yourself. Do you want to do the activity because it will fulfill your desire to help others? If the answer is 'yes', then by all means, dive in! But if it’s not, you’ll want to have a way to explain to yourself or any other pressuring parties why you won’t (notice I didn’t say can’t) meet this obligation.

Your honest reasoning may be as simple as “I have so many other things going on and I want to spend that energy on quality time with my family”. Or you could remind yourself of the other ways that you give back to your community, and that this particular method isn’t your cup of tea. For example, I may not spend a lot of time directly in my children’s schools, but I definitely make an effort to improve their school system by following new political proposals, and lobbying my local representatives. I also connect with them about their school experiences at the end of the day.

And here’s a little tip, you’re not actually under any obligation to give a reason to that pushy PTA parent. Your response can be as simple as saying thank you for the offer but that you don’t plan to volunteer this week, month, get the picture.

So the next time your bestie asks what you think about the way she handled a difficult moment at work, take a moment to really reflect on your feelings and what the most useful feedback would be for your friend’s greatest good. Then have an honest and loving conversation with her. I know that’s the kind of authentic support I want from my people. Don’t we all?



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