#167: The Intense Power of Kindness (And How It Has Nothing To Do With Business)


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In 1970, two psychologists did a very interesting experiment called the “The Good Samaritan experiment”.

It was meant to determine whether we're kind other some conditions and oblivious at other times.

What makes us kinder, more generous?

Is there something that's been under our nose all along that we've been missing? Let's find out.

You can read the transcript here: #167:The Incredible Power of Kindness (And Why It Has Nothing To Do With Business)


A few months ago, my brother in law's house was burgled.

What do you say to someone when their house has been burgled? What do you say when you run into a friend, and you find she's lost her father? We live in a world that's filled with kindness, or else we wouldn't function on a day to day basis.

However, as one writer wrote: We're only one generation away from anarchy. We're all born selfish. Kids hang on to their toys and bawl at the need to control the entire ice-cream stand.

We have to be taught to be kind.

And kindness comes in different forms

It's not just about charity or letting the other driver cut into your lane on the motorway. In today's episode, we go all philosophical, simply because of a book I'd been reading (which I didn't complete, of course). It's a book by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.

Sandberg and her husband, David were on vacation to Mexico. David was on the treadmill exercising when he collapsed and died alone. In her book, Option B, she recounts the horror that inhabited her brain at the time of the accident, and for months later.

This episode isn't about business. It's about kindness and its many forms. Let's find out how we can be adults in a world of “kiddy tantrums”. And how we can be kind as children, in a world of jaded adulthood.

Here are three things we'll cover. I promise it will change the way you look at kindness from now on.

1) Not asking what we should do, but doing something instead 2) Telling someone how they changed your life and being very specific 3) Slowing down, because kindness can be heavily dependent on how much you slow down.

1: Not asking what we should do, but doing something instead.

In 2010, my father in law; Renuka's father, passed away.

I don't remember much about the day. What I do remember was the act of our friend, Cher Reynolds. Somewhere after the funeral, Cher showed up to the house with muffins. “I baked these muffins”, she said. Cher then stayed a while and left. So why did the incident of the muffins stay in my head?

I only realised it when I read Sheryl Sandberg's story.

The difference between Cher and so many people is that Cher left out a question that so many people tend to ask in times of crisis. When there's a disaster, death or sudden misfortune, we feel helpless. And our helplessness shows because we all make a similar sort of statement.

We say: If there's anything we can do to help, please let us know.

On the face of it, such a statement is exceptionally kind. In effect, we're writing a sort of blank cheque. We're saying we'd go completely out of our way to help, no matter what the request.

And yet in its kindness, the statement becomes a bit unkind. It's asking the person who's under enormous stress, to let you know what they need.

The stress is so high that the person is often cut off from reality and can barely function. It's at this point that we misguidedly ask them to “think up a list of what they need”. Author Bruce Feiler writes, “that the offer while well-meaning, shifts the obligation to the aggrieved”.

Cher didn't ask if she could bring muffins

Instead, she took a decision, made the muffins, drove halfway across town and gave the muffins. In the book Option B, Sandberg talks about her colleague Dan Levy. Levy's son was sick and in hospital. That's when a friend texted Levy with a message that went like this: What do you NOT want on a burger?

Levy could see how the friend has not dumped the obligation. “Instead of asking if I wanted food, he made the choice for me but gave me the dignity of feeling in control”. Another friend texted Levy saying she was available for a hug if he needed one. She added that she would be in the hospital lobby for a whole hour, whether he came downstairs or not.

Kindness comes from specific acts, writes Sandberg

“Some things in life can't be fixed. They can only be carried.” My brother-in-law and sister-in-law weren't the same people I'd met just a few days before the incident. They were shocked beyond belief that someone had violated their space.

It's at times like these that we sip from our cup of helplessness and ask that question, “how can we help?” It's at this time that we have to step up and act.

That's just the first act of kindness, however. There's more. Like letting someone know how they changed your life. And be specific about it.

2: Tell someone how they changed your life and be specific

At the end of every Psychotactics course, we do something quite unconventional.

We ask for feedback. What's so unconventional about that, you may ask? This act is unusual, because clients are expected to give about 1000 words of what went wrong, and suggestions on how to fix the course.

Which means that if there are 35 clients on the course, we get a mind-boggling 30,000-35,000 words of feedback. And it was on one of these courses that I got feedback from a client named Gordon.

Here's what Gordon wrote to me, separately in an e-mail.

“Whenever I do an assignment incorrectly, you take a lot of effort to tell me what's wrong. You help me get back on track when I'm struggling. And I really appreciate that a lot. However, when I do an assignment, or part of an assignment well, you simply say, “That was good”.

You get what Gordon is saying, right?

He wants specifics both when he's going off the road, but also praise when he's done something correctly. And then for good measure, he wanted to know exactly which part he got right and why I thought it was so very good. In hindsight this request seems so very obvious, doesn't it? Look how quickly we snarl when the coffee's cold, but never stop to tell the barista when the coffee is perfect, and why we think it's so well done.

Every day we get countless opportunities to get mad—and probably just as many where we can be exceptionally kind

Being specific is the key because just a pat on the back, while helpful, is nowhere as good as telling the person why they earned it. Baristas, waitresses, the chef that you never see at the restaurant, they all count.

Even the guy who is trying to get you to buy something at the doorstep counts. And within our own families, our kids, our friends, they all do little things for us, and we often forget to be specific. We forget to tell them how they changed our day, often our lives.

I've learned a lot from my nieces, Marsha and Keira, for instance.

Keira runs in like a typhoon every Friday, turning off all the switches where devices are not charging. I have to remember to tell her how she's changed my laziness with keeping switches on.

Marsha has told me how she often doesn't force her opinion in a discussion, even when she knows she's right. And I've learned to be less pompous as a result. I think we can all be slightly more kind to the people we run into every day.

No one is saying you need to be a saint, of course. We all need our moments of anger and frustration, but when we turn on our faucet of kindness, let's make sure we turn it all the way up and tell people how they make a difference to our lives.

Which takes us to the final aspect of kindness

Strangely, this has nothing to do with how we choose to act. Instead, it examines what causes us to stop and be kind. It's the odd phenomenon that's now known as the “Princeton Seminary Experiment”. But what was this experiment about? And how does it determine our ability to be kinder people?

3: Slow down, because kindness is mostly dependent on an unusual factor

If a traveller is assaulted on the road, who stops to help?

If you've ever read or heard the story of the Good Samaritan, you'll be familiar with how a traveller is assaulted by thieves and left to die. A priest and a Levite pass the injured traveller but don't stop. The Samaritan stops to help the traveller, bandage his wounds and takes him to an inn, where he proceeds to pay for the care of the traveller.

In the 1970s, Princeton social psychologists John Darley and Dan Batson decided to run a modern-day Samaritan test

The students of the Princeton Theological Seminary were asked to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Once they had reached a reasonable level of preparedness, they were expected to deliver a sermon on that very parable. However, in order to give that sermon, they need to get to a studio, in a building across the campus, where they were told they'd be evaluated by their supervisors.

Bear in mind that all of the students were studying to be ordained priests. And every one of them had already been buried in their preparation of the story of the Good Samaritan. Both these scenarios would suggest that if they ran into a scene where someone needed help, this group of all people, would be more inclined to help than any other group.

However there was a little monkey wrench thrown into the mix

As the student prepared to go across to give his sermon, he was given one of three sets of instructions:

“You’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You’d better hurry. It shouldn’t take but just a minute.” This was the high-hurry condition. “The (studio) assistant is ready for you, so please go right over.” This was the intermediate-hurry condition. “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over. If you have to wait over there, it shouldn’t be long.” This was the low-hurry condition.

The students—all the students—were then expected to walk by themselves to the studio

In every case, the student would encounter a “victim” in a desert alley, just like the injured traveller in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was a plant, but the seminarians didn't know that. All they could see was a slouched, destitute-looking person who desperately needed assistance. In such a scenario, and bearing in mind how they were influenced by the parable, how many seminarians would stop to help the “victim?”

The research findings were startling

Only 10% of the students in the high-hurry situation stopped to help the victim. 45% of the students in the intermediate-hurry and a whopping 63% of the students in the low-hurry situations stopped to help the victim. The researchers concluded, “A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going.

Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. Thinking about the Good Samaritan did not increase helping behaviour, but being in a hurry decreased it.”

Time, or the lack of time, that was an overwhelmingly important factor when it came to being kind

To be kind, we all need time and energy. This isn't to suggest that someone with more time will be a kinder person, but when we're in a hurry, we are definitely more aggressive. Tunnel vision comes into play, and we fail to see how we can help others who are in need of our kindness.

It's scary to realise that our lack of time could make us inadvertently selfish

And the anguish that comes from the lack of time isn't new either. Way back in 1911, poet, Henry Davies wrote about how we lead a life of care, and we have no time to stand and stare. Over a century ago, time or the lack of it was still the problem. There's no easy way to solve this problem, of course. We have to hurry up, but there are moments when we can decelerate, so that we have time to be kind.

Kindness isn't something we're necessarily born with. We learn kindness along the way.

To get more kindness in our lives, we need to look at three core aspects. 1) Stop asking what we should do, but doing something instead. 2) Tell someone how they changed our lives, and be specific about how they did it. 3) Slow down, because kindness is mostly dependent when we're not in a hurry.


The motto of 5000bc is “Be kind, be helpful or begone”. Kindness is a lot of work and I'm very grateful for everyone that pitches in. All of those who ask questions are being kind because you're helping others who are reluctant. Those who help out in the critique section or in the Taking Action forum, or in the Technology forum—you're all taking the time to be kind.

The way you welcome a new member, that's an extreme act of kindness, because nothing is better than feeling safe in a new environment. And there are the Cave Guides who voluntarily step in to help new members navigate their way, plus the Cave Elves that step in to make sure all is well while we're away on vacation.

Every one of you makes a big difference. Thank you for your kindness. Thanks very much.

Next up: Why Happiness Eludes Us: 3 Obstacles That We Need To Overcome

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