When I was in first grade at North Hill Elementary School in Rochester, Michigan, I’ll never forget a series of “run-ins” I had with a specific para-pro in the lunchroom.
For whatever reason, she was just mean. She’d come over to our table and say really mean things, for what I thought was no reason.
Of course, I’m sure we were being louder than she wanted us to be, or whatever, but her mean approach just clearly wasn’t working. And quite frankly, none of us first graders were really doing anything wrong. We were just laughing, eating our lunches.
So, I can remember a day when she really got in my face and gave it to me about something. I don’t remember what it was, but it clearly shook me. I was really angry about it.
She was sucking the joy out of my school day. I was scared of her. Now if you know me, you know I typically don’t take any of this kind of behavior from anyone. Even at a young age, I stuck up for myself. But that only backfired with her. I wasn’t going to win this one. She had all the power. All the leverage.
So I went home and talked to my parents about it. They gave me a strategy. My dad called it “Kill ‘Em With Kindness.”
At first glance, it sounds a bit backhanded or tricky. Like, be nice to some one to get something that you want from them. But really, it’s about treating others how you want to be treated, but with a very important twist. With someone who is kind of aggressively being disrespectful to you in situations where you feel your behavior isn’t deserving of it – you have to proactively go out of your way to be nice to them. And not because you want anything in return, but because you believe the reason they’re lashing out is because of their own suffering and need for positive attention / affirmation.
This, is “Kill ‘Em With Kindness.” It’s killing the negativity that they’re about to dish out to you in the future, by planting the seeds of positivity and kindness far in advance of when their actions would occur towards you.
Really, what my parents were doing, was teaching me empathy, but translating it in a way that made sense for me to implement in my life as a six year old (i.e., I had a problem that needed a solution and proactive empathy was the answer).
But here’s the critical part – self-awareness. You have to understand enough about yourself to do a couple things well.
First of all, you have to understand what you really want out of the situation. In this case, I just to be left alone by this woman and to not be yelled at for no reason.
I was six, I just wanted to play with my friends and have fun during our lunchtime. She was ruining that with her own problems and anger.
Secondly, once you realize that, you have to decide what is natural for you to act on. For example. I was not going to do anything special for this woman. That would be weird and contrived. Plus, this wasn’t a situation where I needed to get anything special or a one-time extraordinary result. This was someone I saw every day. I needed to be treated with respect.
I had to figure out how I was going to be proactively empathetic to this woman, aka “Kill ‘Em With Kindness.”
I decided maybe she just saw us kids as troublemakers. Maybe no kids were ever nice to her. She was always arguing with kids. Maybe she felt that nobody respected or cared about her.
I thought maybe if I just said hello and asked her how her day was going, that could be a good start.
Of course, I’m sure my parents helped me with this strategy/idea. 🙂
Sure enough, as soon as I got up the courage to approach her and just say hello and ask her how her day was going, she became a completely different person. I’d be lying if I told you things didn’t almost immediately turn around after that positive encounter.
I can still kind of feel the sense of relief I felt the rest of my first grade year as I’m writing this. After that moment, she was never again a problem for me. In fact, she became more of an ally due to my reaching out to her.
That was it. All she needed was someone to treat her kindly.
Other situations in my life haven’t been as simple to navigate, but the simplicity of this one taught me a true life lesson.
Never under-estimate a simple act of kindness and empathy towards someone who may be giving you a problem.
While successful businesses understand this is an amazing customer service strategy, the reason I’m writing about it now is because I need to always remind myself of this.
I tend to get defensive at times when I feel under-appreciated. In these scenarios, just like little first grade Paul, adult Paul has two options:
Feel sorry for myself and build up resentment, or be proactive about my situation and like my mom and dad said back in 1988, “Kill ‘Em With Kindness.”
This isn’t easy, because it’s not the same thing as “just being nice or respectful.” It’s identifying a problem that can be solved by something other than your natural reactive behavior, and sucking up your pride and pausing your natural reaction and instead doing something different.
I will always need to remember this, and I hope in some way it resonates with you.
Thanks mom and dad!