Do you think of yourself as a “nice” person? If so, you may have a problem. I don’t know, of course. But you just might. Hold that thought, and answer these two questions…
- Do you think of yourself as a “kind” person?
- Do you think “nice” and “kind” are one and the same?
I’m asking you these questions because it is like the theme of the week this week. It is the theme I’m seeing in my clients and family: well-intentioned people who have values like “compassion” and “honesty” and “service to others”… and who see themselves as “nice” people are tripping themselves up left, right, and center.
And I get it: “nice” (for most of us) is our social conditioning. But it is often doing us and others more harm than good. So what do I do when this comes up in conversation with others?
I have them think through the potential differences between “nice” and “kind”. When I share the way I define those two words, they seem to have a “light bulb” moment. A flicker of recognition. A glimmer of hope. Want that light bulb? I’ll give it my best shot. Here goes…
The Connected-Candid Matrix
I derived the diagram to the left from the work of Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor. The original diagram I saw of her work said that “Radical Candor” is challenging directly whilst caring personally. For purposes here, I changed “challenging directly” to “candid”, and “caring personally” to “connected.”
In your relationships, what quadrant do you aspire to be in? What’s your intention? I want you to really think about that. Most people would say “upper right.” But what about you? And, if so, why aren’t you already there? Hold this in the back of your mind. We are headed towards that light bulb, maybe.
Which quadrant is home base for you, now? By home base, I mean which is the quadrant you are in most of the time. Most people will say, “upper left.” Some proudly say, “Lower right, but at least I get s#%t done.”
And some will say “upper right.” And I’ll say, “What would your spouse or significant other say… or your team?” All of a sudden, “Well, maybe not upper right…”
All of us have a home base quadrant, and I’d guess about 70% call the upper left home, 20% the lower right, and the balance in the lower left or upper right. I honestly haven’t come to know someone whose home base is upper right. I see people who appear to hang there, but as was said in one of The Matrix movies, “You don’t know someone until you fight them.”
You, like all the rest of us, have probably visited all four quadrants. But one is home base. When things stop working for us there, we typically sail into the quadrant that is the polar opposite… from upper left to lower right and back again. Or from lower right to upper left and then back again. With — on really bad days — an occasional foray into the lower left. But that is pretty yucky space and we don’t tend to “hang” there.
Whatever the movement is, we zoom right past the upper right. We swing from pillar to post. Sometimes the people who know us best wonder which one of us is going to show up when the stress mounts. And they can guess pretty well, I’d suppose.
Bottom line: the majority reading this will likely be upper left home base, zipping down to the lower right when triggered. After the storm is over, you’ll return home. To “nice” and yet “not fully honest.” And you will create the same set of circumstances — sowing the seeds, if you will — to make the next “trip.” Dishonesty, it seems, must at some point be lanced. That’s what happens in the lower right.
The point is that we don’t tend to make it up into the upper right quadrant and stay there. We visit it, but it is, to most of us, a foreign land.
We can’t hang in the upper right for very long for several reasons, one of which is it is the quadrant of vulnerability. Vulnerability terrifies us. The lower us. The fear-based, rules-driven ego. And for most of us, that’s the part of us making the big decisions that involve risk.
The other quadrants are far more attractive to our ego because all three other quadrants avoid vulnerability.
- Lower left is creepy, not vulnerable at all. Can appear, in fact, inhuman.
- Lower right is invincible-acting and totally closed-minded. My way or the highway. I know and you don’t. No vulnerability there.
- Upper left isn’t fully honest and is placing “not rocking the boat” or “making waves” or “making people feel uncomfortable” above truthfulness and authenticity. That’s not vulnerable. That’s chicken.
The upper right quadrant is the sector of vulnerability. The sector of true strength and great courage. Of open heart (kindness, compassion, connection), open mind (curiosity, willingness to be impacted and affected), and strong spine (willingness to stand for and do what is right and good and true, no matter the consequences, even if others are uncomfortable or reject us). All at the same time. These are things far beyond our ego, and often, far beyond our current levels of capacity.
The good news is — I believe — anyone can develop the capacity for vulnerability, strength, and courage. Brené Brown must believe it, too, ’cause she’s got some seriously loyal and enthusiastic followers who are totally in to it.
What’s the way to holding vulnerability, strength, and courage at the same time — even when we’re triggered? Honestly, I don’t know. Just like you, I’m working it. But I do have a hunch. And my hunch is one gateway we can swing open for ourselves and others is to de-conflate “nice” and “kind”. To seeing that — perhaps — kindness is a higher form of connectedness and caring than nice ever can or will be.
Nice vs Kind
Notice in the diagram above that the y-axis is the axis of “Connected”. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve taken the position that there are two types of connection. We can connect to some degree by being “nice” and to another degree by being “kind”. (I know it is more complicated than this. But stay with me.)
I literally just presented this figure to the left in a slide deck today to 100+ managers on a videoconference. We were exploring the prerequisite of crucial conversations, namely, helping the other person or people involved feel safe.
I defined “nice” and “kind”. The first bullets are from Merriam-Webster, and then in the remaining bullets, I teased it out from there.
The main point I made is that “nice” does not engender a feeling of safety. When we are being nice, the other person senses that we are not being real, authentic, straightforward, forthcoming. And, consciously or unconsciously, they are wondering what we aren’t telling them. This slide summarizes the difference — in my opinion — between “nice” and “kind”. Study it for a moment or two. Ponder on it. (Click on it and you will get a larger PDF that might be easier to read.)
Nice Makes People Unsafe? Causes Distrust? No!
I was talking to a client, let’s call him Mike, during a break at a workshop. I’d come to know him pretty well over the prior year. This topic of “nice” came up in the context of a situation he was sharing. The other person he was speaking about “didn’t seem to trust him.” He was perplexed as to why and was reading all kinds of things into this other person’s motives.
I laughed. That caught Mike a bit by surprise.
He said, “Why are you laughing?” looking perplexed.
“Mike, do you know in the past I’ve teased you about being such a ‘nice’ person?”
“Yes, but I never understood why you teased me about that, really. How does that relate to this?”
“Simple. I don’t trust ‘nice’ people.”
Mike was dumbstruck. After a moment, he replied, “I don’t understand… why not?”
“Because I cannot trust that a nice person is telling me the truth. And that makes me nervous.” I let that sink in and continued.
“With a ‘nice’ person, I’m always thinking about (a) what are they withholding entirely in their nice-ness and (b) for the part they aren’t withholding, I am efforting to figure out what they really mean. In essence, I know they are often (a) being somewhat dishonest and (b) spinning the rest such that I can’t grasp the gravity of what they are bringing. So how can I trust them? They don’t even seem to trust themselves. So why should I? And, therefore, how can I feel safe with them?
I’m sorry, but given what you’ve described, Mike, I can understand why this other person isn’t trusting you.
Have you been fully truthful with them regarding this matter?”
Mike thought for a moment or two. “Uh. Er. Well. No. Maybe I should start there.”
“May… be!” I said.
Mike and I shared a hearty laugh together, a hug, and the break was over. He reminds me about this conversation up to this very day. And Mike? He’s on his way to kind and not-so-nice. His health, happiness, and effectiveness… on the way up. He’s headed towards the upper right.
Assembling Reality Differently
Our level of development impacts the way we construct reality. Once you understand this, you understand that the upper right quadrant involves changing the way we understand ourselves, others, and our worlds. Harvard professors and authors Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey cover the science of adult development in Chapter 2, ‘What Do We Mean By Development’ in their book An Everyone Culture. (It’s worth buying the book, if only for that chapter, if you are serious about personal development!)
There are three levels of adult development, with transitions between those levels. We are all somewhere on that upward-moving continuum. The three levels are:
- Socialized Mind — At this level, we are mostly concerned about fitting in, not rocking the boat, not being found offensive, etc.
- Self-Authoring Mind — At this level, we are mostly concerned with asserting ourselves, our agenda, our views, our way forward.
- Self-Transforming Mind — At this level, we become inclusive. Open-minded. Holding multiple perspectives and contradictions.
Each level of development has a different set of filters through which the person sees and assembles reality. These are not subtle differences. Not at all. Why does this matter here? Do you remember I said above that the upper right quadrant is “far beyond our current levels of capacity”?
You can’t make up your mind to move to the upper right: You have to change your mind. Literally, change the way you see things, the way you assemble reality. This is not some minor thing. And I’m bringing this up for three reasons:
- The journey to the upper right quadrant is the journey of personal development. If you aren’t there, to get there you transform.
- In transforming, your way of thinking fundamentally changes. And
- When you understand the implications of the three levels of adult development, you can understand why most people are upper left.
Approximately 60% of adults have not reached the second level, Self-Authoring. This means that 60% of adults are Socialized Mind or working their way up the slope between Socialized Mind and Self-Authoring Mind. Socialized Mind is very much oriented to being found pleasing, acceptable, agreeable, to remain a part of the tribe.
If 60% of adults are assembling reality through the Socialized Mind level of development, doesn’t it make sense that “nice” is common? That most people would be in the upper left quadrant? “Nice” eschews honesty and directness for social acceptance.
A Different Way of Thinking
I’m making an assertion here that our level of development impacts our ability to reach and then hold the upper right quadrant, Kind and Candid. And I’ve said above that this level of development involves a way of seeing and assembling reality that isn’t apparent at the lower levels of development. This way of thinking, in fact, may seem unimaginable at the lower levels. (By the way, “IQ” isn’t the same as “level of development”, the latter which Kegan and Lahey refer to as “mental complexity.”)
My purpose here isn’t to outline all the ways the upper right-hand quadrant and Self-Transforming Mind thinking is different. First, I’ve not reached Self-Transforming and it would be incredibly arrogant to think I can say what that type of thinking involves. Secondly, this is an article.
But I can do — I think — is tease out one possible difference in mindset.
- The mindset of someone in the upper left quadrant emphasizes “not hurting feelings” of the other and also sees the other as not being strong enough to handle the feedback, honesty, or truth. In the upper left, there is an assumption and an underlying fear that honesty is not worth the risk of hurting the other or rupturing the relationship. And that fear drives things.
- The mindset of someone in the upper right quadrant is very different. Firstly, they see the other as capable of handling the feedback, honesty, or truth. Secondly, they believe in growth and development and see that as involving inevitable discomfort… for the other, and for one’s self. Thirdly, while the upper left mindset is driven by the fear that being totally honest may hurt the other person or rupture the relationship, the upper right mindset considers this but is not automatically constrained by it. Instead of this fear there is… unconditional love.
It is not hard to see a person operating from the lower right quadrant as arrogant. Here the person’s behavior clearly indicates they see their own self as superior to the other. They possess the truth. The power. The agenda. The approach. The way. The other person — to them — is clueless, stupid, slow-moving, ignorant, weak, or so wrong that the lower-right acting person feels entitled to set their guns ablaze. Our culture even sometimes reveres people who act thusly, seeing them as strong. They can even be elected to very high levels in our organizations. Political systems, even. Just sayin’
What is harder to see is that the person operating in the upper left is, likewise, arrogant. When I say this, it often takes the well-intentioned folks aback. “No. You don’t understand. I’m very altruistic. I care. Deeply. I’m not… arrogant!” But if you unpack it a little bit, if you think back to what we’ve already covered, part of the mindset of a person operating from upper left is you can’t handle the truth. Think about it. Someone being “nice” to you doesn’t think you can handle the truth. You don’t think that is arrogant on their part? If you see it as arrogant (as I do) then, by extension: when you do it or I do it, is it not also arrogant? You and I are placing the other person’s strength and capacity beneath our own… by default… even when it is not true.
There are certain situations, of course, where a person is not in a state or does not have the capacity to hear what we might say. Therefore, the timing is wrong. And timing is very important. But what I see in people (and myself) operating from the upper left is using timing as an excuse, not a reason. A consistent excuse. Basically, if it makes them or the other person uncomfortable, they tell themselves, “The timing is all wrong.” The flaw in their logic is so simple to see. Right timing does not mean they or the other person will be comfortable. Honesty is often an inconvenient truth, and therefore, quite uncomfortable. So, comfort alone is not the right measure for timing.
How might we work our way to the upper right?
- Set your intention to get there.
- Accurately assess which quadrant is home base for you.
- Start seeing the behaviors you do that keep you there.
- Interrupt the behaviors of 3, even though it will be very scary to do so.
- Watch the results. Evaluate whether our fears and our assumptions have been guiding us correctly.
- Clean up the inevitable messes. You will screw this up. Anticipate failure. See it as part of learning. And, as Sara says, “make repairs.”
- Agree with someone you love… to make the journey with you. To practice together. To give one another feedback. To give one another grace. To challenge one another directly, whilst caring about one another immensely.
That’s my “how”, anyway.
Journey to the Upper Right
I’ll meet you there. I’ll meet you there. And Mike, too. The three of us.
But now, I’m an upper left quadrant home base kind of guy. Until I’m not! Know what I mean? Man, nice people can turn really mean, can’t they? Yup. When I get triggered — set up by my own faux-kindness and dishonesty — I’m a full-on lower right kind of guy. I don’t fall into the abyss of the lower-left as frequently as I used to. Pretty rare now, actually.
And I catch myself in the lower-right and recover a bit faster from it. As I practice compassion, self-compassion, disrupting behaviors, challenging my assumptions, navigating the liminal space, turning into resistance, and all the things I write about on this blog… I gain capacity. And grit. And resilience.
I’m working my way towards the upper right. That’s what I want for my home base. I may not make it there in this lifetime, not as home base. But I tell you this: in the time I have left in this life, I intend to visit it as often as I can. And, my friend…
I’ll meet you there. Whether as visitors or relocators, I’ll meet you there. We’ve got this. Let’s do it. All together. As if humanity hinges upon it.
Because, perhaps, it does.
Let’s end “nice”. Let’s move beyond its well-intentioned but highly limiting comforts and social conditioning of “nice”. Let’s get real. Let’s get edgy. Let’s get strong and courageous and vulnerable. Let’s see others as capable. Let’s get comfortable with discomfort. Let’s become kind. And candid, yes. Both, in high and equal doses.
Kind, first. Kind, always. Unconditionally. No matter what. No matter if it makes the other person uncomfortable. Kindness does not guarantee comfort. Always remember that.
In fact, kindness guarantees occasional discomfort. For us, and for others. Because kindness supports growth. And growth, as you may have noticed, isn’t always comfortable. Vulnerability is not always comfortable. Honesty is not always comfortable.
And there is never any telling whether the other person will be negatively triggered by what we say and do, even if our motives and intentions are pure and we are holding their best interests at heart. And the moment managing their reaction primarily determines what we share, say, and do, we are right back to “nice”. Right back to withholding. Right back to dishonest. Or coddling. Or spinning. Or down-playing. Right back to upper left.
Kind, first. Kind, always. That’s my intention, how I want to be, the world I want to live in. And the world, one day, I will also leave behind.