I have been thinking a lot about kindness. The Dalai Lama said, “My true religion is Kindness.” What does this mean for me? How do I put this into practice? And what place does kindness have in counselling? How is kindness different from niceness in counselling?

To the last question, I see a profound difference between being nice and being kind. To me, niceness is a social agreement, akin to etiquette, based on the desire for acceptance and appreciation. It is a diplomatic endeavour done to keep peace or keep a group cohesive and without conflict. This is not a bad thing, of course. But it is also not necessarily truthful or honest.

Kindness has a very different tone. It seems to me that it can be a beacon through the murkiness of discomfort. I see kindness as arising from genuine care for the other. To me, kindness is the:

  • Willingness to uphold one’s own and another’s dignity
  • Inclination to remain open and curious – to not know
  • Commitment to seek help when you need it and to offer help when you can
  • Readiness to apologize when you’ve made a mistake, without excuses
  • Flexibility and responsiveness to another person’s non-verbal cues
  • Willingness to offer compassion to oneself and to others
  • Capacity to say things that are difficult or challenging
  • Ability to cut off harmful behaviours or conversation

So kindness is not always nice. It can be challenging to hear someone reflect something cruel that we have just said. It can be very difficult for someone to point out a self-harming pattern of behaviour that we engage in. And yet, done with kindness, this can be a catalyst for us to change. It can also be an act of kindness to have someone stop us from continuing a downward spiral of rage or self-loathing.

I call this warrior’s kindness. It is like the surgeon’s scalpel that cuts out the malignancy with a clean and crisp cut so that healing can occur. It is like a sharp sword of clarity that sets clean expectations and boundaries and can say, “that is enough” when necessary. It is the kindness we draw upon to pull a child from the road as a speeding vehicle approaches.

I think this warrior kindness has a real place in my counselling practice. It need not be harsh or abrupt: that would not be kind. And it requires that I look inside and try to make sure that I am not being reactionary but trying, to the best of my ability, to not speak from my own biases and assumptions. It requires that I acknowledge that I might not be right, but that I am hearing or observing things in a certain way. And it requires that I muster my own courage and try my best to speak from my heart.

A counsellor and mentor of mine said that saying difficult but honest things was her main role, always done with kindness but never done with niceness. She said her clients would walk out if they thought she was being nice and seek out that reflection and truthful mirror elsewhere.

So I am reminded of Henry James’ words:

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”