There is a silent and mounting price to being “nice”. I’m talking about the version of being nice that is at the expense of being fully, straightforwardly, breathtakingly honest.
The price compounds over time. It taxes us, silently reducing our belief in ourselves. It injects and then maintains (or even nurtures) dysfunction in our relationships. As time goes by, it calcifies. It becomes more difficult to remove. The failure of dishonesty begets more and more failure. The dishonesty becomes concretized. Embedded. And it becomes increasingly harder for us to face.
And yet that is what we have and what we must work with. There’s no amnesty. No ctrl-alt-delete. No reformatting the hard drive. And so we must work with what we already have. If we are to evolve, grow, heal, and integrate, anyways.
It is a movement so simple and yet so anxiety-provoking. The movement? Turn into the places that scare you. Face the failure. Your feelings of failure. Face the fear of the implications of addressing what has not been addressed for so long.
Why is this on my mind? I saw this just this week. In Lauren and in myself.
Lauren (not her real name) was reporting on a “crucial conversation” test she’d run with someone who works for her. She was in a small peer development group meeting, what we call a Situation Workshop. Her peers were wanting to make her feel like the conversation she was reporting on was actually a success even though it seemed clear that she herself was conflicted about it. I wasn’t buying it. Why?
Lauren hinted to this other person that their counterproductive behavior had caused Lauren to pass them up for promotion. In fact, Lauren was hiring a new manager this person would now report to.
The person’s counterproductive behavior is they are overly blunt with their team members. After the Lauren’s peers had their say, I said, “Lauren, you are killing me,” with a chuckle. She smiled and said, “Why is that?”
“Your strategy for a ‘crucial conversation’ with a blunt person is to be subtle?” Lauren and the group laughed. I asked Lauren why she hadn’t been fully and straightforwardly honest with this person. A stream of rationale streamed from Lauren, all mental content.
Lauren had no feeling for the fear driving her “nice”, dishonest behavior. I waved my hand, motioning Lauren to stop. “Lauren, maybe I can help. Just be still for one moment. I want you to imagine for a moment being fully honest with this person about this matter. Visualize that. Do you have it?”
“Yes. I don’t like it, but I have it.”
“Okay, do you feel distress or discomfort in your body?”
“That’s fear. That’s normal. Can you name the fear? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. See if you can.”
Lauren sat for a moment, and then it came out like a blinding flash of the obvious.
“I can’t face the fact that I’ve failed her for five years.”
What Lauren said surprised her, surprised all of us. This was a conversation she’d been avoiding for five years. She had been failing this person for five years. This really isn’t that uncommon, is it? How less-than-honesty–a.k.a. dishonesty–carries on over time. Develops a life of its own.
“Remove the rock from your shoe rather than learn to limp comfortably.” — Stephen C. Paul
I was taken away by Lauren’s ability to accept the invitation to be still, fall within, and bring out and forward her own answer. It says a lot about who she is, what she wants, and that which she is becoming.
Failure begets failure and works a momentum all its own. Once we avoid our first inclination to be honest with someone, it seems to become increasingly difficult to break the original dishonesty. And even more difficult as it compounds over time. The dynamic gets baked into the relationship, into us.
We are being polite and we are hurting the other. If only we could see this. Nice often means avoiding making the other person feel uncomfortable or bad or embarrassed or whatever we imagine their reaction might be. And, in the meantime, we are potentially supporting them in their weakness, stunting their development, sowing disharmony around us, and keeping our own selves weak.
Honesty with kindness is a courageously vulnerable act. When we are both fully honest and directly challenging the other whilst also caring personally, we are unguarded. We are exposed. We may be wrong. We may be rejected. The other person may point out our faults. Share what they have been withholding about us. The other person may lose emotional control. Or we might. All this and more. See what I mean by vulnerable? See what I mean by courageous?
It is edgy, unpredictable, uncontrollable space. It isn’t comfortable for them. It isn’t comfortable for us, either. So we avoid it, justifying our lack of full candor by telling ourselves we “don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings.” While that is true, often our unconscious, primary concern is that we want to avoid our own feelings of discomfort of both facing the past and of feeling the vulnerability required. right?
“Lauren, I have a challenge for you. Five years have passed, yet it isn’t too late. Between now and when this group meets again in two weeks, I challenge you to be fully honest with this person. You, of course, must decide whether you want to accept the challenge. The timing may or may not be right for you. But don’t dismiss the challenge just because it is scary. Get a feeling for whether this feels like the right thing to do, for her and for you and for your five-year relationship. And if it is, summon your courage. You are a kind person. Keep the kindness, but drop being nice. Be fully, straightforwardly, bracingly honest.”
Lauren nodded. Challenge accepted. An Enneagram Nine, the Peacemaker, Lauren at her average level of awareness avoids conflict like the plague. The irony — and her greatest as yet untapped asset — is that Lauren also has all the inherent capabilities she needs to pull this off well. Her aversion for conflict is matched by an inherent “feeling” and related capacities for doing conversations like this really well.
Lauren only needs to step over the fear and draw upon those inherent, untapped strengths of her personality type. Simple, not easy. For she really is facing at least four fears:
- Of upsetting this other person — making them feel bad or damaging the relationship
- Of acknowledging to herself and to the other that she’s let the other down… for five years (gulp)
- Of the uncomfortable feelings she will feel inside as this conversation unfolds, and
- That it might spin out of control.
That’s not a small challenge. Yet if she does it and dances in that vulnerable, liminal space, she will find resources within her that she doesn’t even know she has. Her soul will be her pilot, her ego will take the back seat, her capacities will well up and flow, and she will at least be “okay.” And, possibly, a whole lot better than that. Possibly, a breakthrough.
The key? To keep her heart open. To have a heart at peace, not a heart at war. And to tolerate the unknown and the inevitable suffering that may arise and not collapse within it.
Such it is with all of us. And we all avoid full candor with kindness like the plague. And then we end up with the plague, the plague of dysfunction, entropy, inertia, dishonesty, hurt, harm, suffering. We fail ourselves and one another. By default, we choose suffering. Suffering for ourselves. Suffering for others.
If we could just but see this for what it really is, “nice” would have no place in our lives any longer. Because “nice” isn’t really nice at all.
Unconditional love is totally honest. This is what we all long for. And the journey to unconditional love is through the town of nice. The problem is we pulled over in that town to gas up and grab a snack, and we never left. We got sleepy in a sleepy, charming little town.
Unconditional love lies in the destinations beyond that pleasant place. Nice is well-intentioned. Nice is pleasant. Non-offensive. Nice has a great ice cream shop, and stores full of pastries and sweets. And nice is also harmful, past its cheery facade. You can feel this, can’t you?
True kindness. Unconditional love. Deep compassion. Wisdom. These are the destinations that await us on the other side of nice. And while we can’t take “nice” with us, we must take the learning from our time there. We must value the layover and experiences gained for what it all was. And move on.
I was meeting with Sara yesterday, after this Situation Workshop with Lauren. Sara and I were talking about something that I need to attend to in our business before the end of the year, something that has been dragging on for years now.
We go by the name Adept in our business. Yet I’ve never changed the legal name from Leadership Forge. You know, “been too busy” and all the other excuses. But it is time to sort this out. I know in my bones that calling the business one thing and having the legal name of another sends a conflicted message out into the universe. We aren’t sounding a clear note, sounding the right chord. I’ve got to right that, and I honestly hate doing this kind of stuff.
But that is the face value excuse. There’s something much deeper at play.
The truth is that sorting this out means facing a situation with another person I’ve been avoiding for many years now. Someone I care about and yet haven’t addressed because I, too, err on the side of nice. But, deeper down, I dread the conflict that may occur. The dynamic of that particular type of conflict brings me up against some early childhood trauma. And I sure dislike exposing myself to the possibility of being brought up against that.
Yet I must. It may be a non-event. That’s not the point. The point is that I don’t know. The point is that thinking about it makes me feel like I have a knot in my chest and like the energy is draining from my limbs. The point is that I have to step over some really big fears. The point is that down deep in my brain, thinking about it–much less doing it–is terrifying.
I wonder sometimes if “nice” is a way of avoiding our past hurts, our personal history. For some of us, that past has some trauma. And for all of us, that past has some history we’d rather not see replayed.
What we avoid ends up owning us. That’s why we must turn into the places that scare us. Through those places lies our freedom.
It is interesting to me how often the advice I give to someone is the advice I need to act on myself. It is one of the greatest benefits of my job. It requires me to look at myself all the time.
So here I go. And, like Lauren, I’m scared. And, as Sara pointed out to me as we discussed this, sometimes fear and sadness are simply indulgences. Particularly when we become aware of what we must do, why we must do it, and are looking for any excuse to not do so.
Feeling fear and sadness is normal in situations like Lauren, mine, and probably yours. But staying there isn’t the way out, and ruminating in it fixes nothing. This is the path of healing, growth, integration. It is the way out of nice. It is the way towards unconditional love.
And now, perhaps you, like me, face a choice of whether to take that path. Or to extend your stay a bit longer in the sleepy, charming, non-offensive town of nice with its inherent, hidden suffering. I have a feeling the little town of nice lies at the end of an easy, smooth asphalt road. And that adventure lies beyond it. Past where the asphalt ends.
It harkens, doesn’t it?
P.S. If you found this article helpful or interesting and have not read my article Nice vs Kind, you may want to check that out here.