Have Courage and Be Kind
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. This super gorgeous song we're listening together right now is called Angola Moon. It's from the band An Eagle In Your Mind off their album, Magnificent Weapon. I thought it was a perfect introduction for our topic today. We're talking about the power of kindness. A topic, I think more important than ever, in our crazy world.
And today, we're talking with an expert on the subject about how we can all intentionally cultivate real, meaningful kindness in our communities, and in our relationships, and within ourselves. My guest today is author Houston Kraft. Houston is the co-founder and CEO of Character Strong, and also the author of the book, Deep Kindness, a revolutionary guide for the way we think, talk, and act in kindness. Houston, I am thrilled to be speaking with you today because the world needs you and your work. Thank you, Houston.
Deep Kindness With Houston Kraft
Houston Kraft: Feels increasingly true, doesn't it?
Dr. Lisa: Well, thank you for being here with me. And maybe we could begin just by talking if it's okay, a little bit about your journey into being an expert on the subject of kindness. I must hear the story. Where did this come from?
Houston: Yeah, an ongoing journey for sure. Expertise is growing, I hope with every day. But I've just been talking about it for a long time. I've been working primarily in education. The slightly longer version of a kind of very long story, I suppose, it's the story of my life. It started in high school when some friends and I got together, and we started a club called random acts of kindness, etc. And we met every week, and we talked about kindness, and why it was important, and why the world needed more of it. And we put a huge focus on the sort of the practical side of it. It's like, if we believe this thing's important, how do we go out and do it well? And there's only two rules, only two rules to the club. Every week, we had to meet someone new. And whoever that person was, or sometimes multiple people, we had to leave them better than we found them. That was the goal at least. And so we talked a lot about that, right? Like what does it effectively mean to leave people better than we found them? What are some silly, creative, fun, powerful, meaningful ways to make this impact? And then we went to work every week, we've just tried to bring more kindness to life at our school.
Dr. Lisa: Okay, I want to hear more about this club. But like, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around how you in high school, had such this well-developed sense of, “I'm going to be the sprinkler of love.” And I mean, just like thinking of myself in high school, the kid smoking cigarettes under the bleachers, and the black t-shirt like glaring at people, we can go different ways. How did you arrive into a state of being when you were a little 16 year old? You're like, “I'm gonna be a force of good in the world.” Your parents are like missionaries? How does it happen to you?
Houston: Yeah, I got it from my mom definitely. Both my parents lean compassionate, and I've learned a lot from both of them along the way. But perhaps even on a more practical level, why I started the club itself was because of my experience with like student leadership. So, I got invited by a teacher. Teachers are amazing. Sometimes the power of a simple invitation to join student leadership, which I previously had no interest in, and as a result of joining, I went to the summer camp. And at the summer camp, I heard this guy, his name's John. I heard him speak on stage, about a paradigm shift at the time for me going into my senior year of high school. A pretty profound paradigm shift around what leadership meant. I've always had this vision of student leadership, just putting on the activities, and the fun, and the rah-rah, and making posters. And at this camp, it was sort of introduced to me, this idea of leadership as an exercise in love. And that the greatest leaders sacrifice and are willing to serve people despite how comfortable or convenient it is. And I remember walking out of that camp feeling not only inspired, but equipped to go back to my school and say, ‘Okay, this is what it’s going to be about’. Like I want the people at my school, to feel belonging, and acceptance, and love, like all the things that I crave. So, how do I make… How can I practically go back and start to build that into my own habits, and create accountability for myself, and invite other people into the process? And I remember one of our leadership values was selfless service. And the definition that still stands out to me to this day is I'm creating opportunities for others to be involved. And I was, “Yeah, I can do all the stuff that I want on my own, but how powerful it is to invite people into that process with you.” Because one of my favorite Dale Carnegie quotes is “People support the things they help build.” And the more that we create ownership together over an idea, the more likely that we're going to live into that idea.
So both of my parents, of course, you have to have those loving relationships growing up. Like that's a good piece of the puzzle, and I feel very fortunate that is a piece of my puzzle. But I think it's also like language, right, paradigms. And the way we think about things in our head shapes the way we act with them in the world. So, far definition of leadership is this version over here, we perhaps are only going to live with that version, or act based on that version. But I feel super fortunate that I got introduced to this pretty dramatic, different definition of what leadership can be in our culture, and it changed the trajectory of my life. And that same guy, John, who I heard speak, we co-founded the organization. I know, we run together, Character Strong. So fast forward, whatever it is… 16, 17 years later, I get to work alongside the guy that inspired sort of the trajectory of my life.
Dr. Lisa: That is such a cool story. And it's just amazing that this has been such a, not just a personal passion, but just like an area of meaning and purpose since you were literally a kid. Well, and I want to talk more about your work. But I have to know just out of curiosity, if we had gotten to high school together, Houston, what would you have said to the group of kids in the black t-shirts under the bleachers, smoking cigarettes, and glaring at people? What would you do?
Houston: I don't know if I would have found you all! Sounds like you were hiding out!
Dr. Lisa: Or behind the mall? Sometimes?
Houston: Fair enough. Yeah? No, no, actually, one of my other prouder moments of school was I started an organization called The Silent Voices, which is really the premise of the silent majority. There's a lot of people who have skin in the game around something, but maybe don't feel safe, or have advocates to champion those voices forward. And there is this kid at my school who he approached me saying, “Hey.” I was student body president, and he's like, “You're in charge of this stuff. What can you do to help fix the school that feels broken to me?” And I remember it being like a humbling thing of my perspective. My experience in school was not definitive of everyone's experience in school. So it didn't matter if I felt safe, and excited, and spirited around my school. That wasn't a guarantee for everyone else's, and that's hard, right? That's a perspective. Taking exercise we have to grow into, choose our practice into, and this kid came to me, and we sat down together. And this kid felt pretty generally outcasted from the vast majority of school, and we built this club together that met every two weeks. And I wasn't involved in the meetings, because sort of his job was to recruit the people from these ancillary groups that felt otherwise othered, or not a sense of belonging. And then he would come to me and we would sit down, debrief those meetings, so I could take them back to what we were trying to incorporate into our school. So we hung out somewhere.
Dr. Lisa: Wow. Going on little diplomatic missions, into different cliques in the school… that is just incredible. You know what though, and I want to say this as a psychologist, and someone who talks to people who are 20s, 30s, even older… who were so deeply wounded by some of the not just hurtful, but like traumatic experiences of rejection and hostility that they had in school from other kids that was so profoundly wounding. It really sort of shaped their identity, and the way that they feel about themselves well into adulthood, and we have to do oftentimes a lot of work in therapy of unwinding some of that in order for them to feel okay about themselves, or even not afraid of people. And just the fact that you in high school had the presence of mind and were working to, I'm imagining, counter some of that, it's just remarkable. And thank you, because there are probably kids that you went to school with who are healthy and well at this stage of their lives because of the work you did at that point. That's amazing.
How to Be Kind: Steps to Growth
Houston: That is a fun reminder of the power of influence that you don't know. That's part of the definitional paradigm shift I had was that everyone's a leader because everyone's influencing all the time, whether we want to or not. We're influencing people in action, or in our choosing not to act. We are influential. And I love James Hunters quote, he says, “It's not a question of whether or not you're leading, the only question is, are you effective? And are you using your influence for good or for bad?” There's only two questions like do you have the tools to actually know what to do with your influence? And are you using your influence to move people towards something healthy and positive supporting, loving, or the opposite?
And there's so many fun paradigm shifts when you start to think about organizations in our own life. Sometimes, the most influential person in a business and organization in school isn't the person with the biggest position or title. And sometimes the person who has who is a really effective leader aren't always using their influence for good, right? You can be really good at leadership and very negative. So, having those tools in my toolbox in high school,that's part of the passion I have for education today. I change the way we can think about, even some simple practical word, like leadership. It’s changed the pathway of my life.
Dr. Lisa: Wow. Just amazing. Well, and I love it, and that you're kind of partnering the idea of leadership with influence, and just the opportunity to influence people, and interactions, and things that you might not even be conscious of in the moment, in such a positive way. So let's talk if it's okay with you, a little bit more deeply about like the central subject of what your work has evolved into, at least at this point in your life. You're a young man, I can't wait to see where all this goes. But to talk about the concept of kindness, and I mean this might sound a little bit weird, but could you just take a few minutes and unpack that? Not just word, but the concept of kindness. When you talk about being kind, what are you talking about? Because I think that can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
Houston: Yeah, one of the great joys and struggles of life is that we have different mental models for things that seem even seemingly commonplace concepts, like kindness. And that's one of the big challenges. And I remember being at a training one time. We train educators on how to deliver our content in schools, and we were talking about kindness. And one of the women said, “You know we have students at our school, who kindness to them, is when they come home. Their parent has gone shopping, they've prepared the meal. It's laid out, set up. They have time to do their homework. They sit down, and kindness is that this meal is in front of them. And afterwards, the parent cleans up, and does the dishes, and put stuff away which is giving the student time to get to their other tasks, their homework, their work.” She goes, “And for some students, kindness, and it's still kindness to them, is the fact that their grandmother left some leftovers in the fridge when they get home from their second job.” Like, those are both actions of kindness. They're just contextualized by our experience. And it's one of the things we have to work with specifically schools on, but in the context of our conversation.
Think about the word, right? You say that word “be kind,” or you give this prompt “be kind.” And that means so many things to so many people because we have our dictionary definition of a word. And then we have our experiential definition of a word, right? Our lived experience is going to be probably the biggest indicator of the paradigms that we have about any given concept. And it's one of those tough ones because I think we collectively agree, kindness is important. But we don't collectively agree on what kindness is. And so how do we encourage the practice of a thing that we don't have really strong common language around? So one of the big premises of the book is really spending the whole time unpacking that word. So it doesn't feel weird to me at all. It feels like this is exactly what I believe in because I sense a collective gap, especially around the ideas of kindness or compassion where you ask a thousand people, “Do you think kindness is important?” and a thousand people are gonna be like, “yeah.” No, I've never asked anyone about what do you think about kindness and like, “Eh, it's alright.” We agree that it's a good thing. The hard part though, of course, it's always gonna be okay. Like, what does that actually mean then to do that thing? When we have opportunities to practice, are we actually showing up to do it?
One of my studies that frustrates me the most because it is so indicative of this gap comes from Harvard's Making Caring Common project. This guy Dr. Richard Weisberg interviewed families and he said, “Hey, what do you want your kids to be ranked them in order: high performing, happy, or kind?” Eighty-something percent of parents said, ‘I want my kids to be happy and kind over high performing’, which is great. I think we would collectively, from a moral perspective, an idealist perspective would be like, “Yeah, of course.” And then they asked the kids of those same parents, “Hey, what do you think your parents want you to be: high performing, happy, or kind?” and the data was the exact opposite. They call it in the study they call it rhetoric reality gap, which is to say, these are the things that we say or are saying are important. And yet, we are not actually making them important by allocating the proper time, attention, resources, effort, and act in order to actually give them the value we are claiming that they have. So, the book spends a lot of time trying to unpack kindness as a concept, because I think our culture has unintentionally devalued the word by over emphasizing its importance without actually delivering the resources beneath it to make it real. And even in the way you think about… if you think about the classic ways we talk about kindness, that cheesy quotes are the things that get posted or shared. You see, like “Just be kind.” You say, this kindness… sprinkle that stuff everywhere, or the one I see most often in schools is “Throw kindness around like confetti.”
Confetti Kindness vs Deep Kindness
Dr.Lisa: But you mentioned that, there's this confetti kindness concept.
Houston: Which is well intentioned, right? And I think that's what one of the rubs for people is, all these things mean well. But even mean-welling things can do unconscious damage, and the unconscious damage I think we've done is… in the book, I say, “fluffified” kindness. We've made it seem like it's as simple, or as easy, or as free as confetti, for example. And it's this bizarre thing that we have as humans is when we think of something is free, we no longer value it, even if it doesn't have monetary costs in the first place. And so to say that kindness is free, we are implying that we're all capable of doing it all the time. And the argument of the book is actually, the type of kindness the world needs costs a lot. From a comfort perspective, from a courage perspective, right? From a convenience perspective.
The kind of kindness the world needs is actually really complicated, and challenging, and requires a whole lot of skills that live underneath it in order to effectively practice it well. And so the book challenges this narrative, that our culture has given us a confetti kindness, and says, “No, we need to reinvent this.” Right? We need to talk about kindness in a way that honors how hard it is, if we're going to actually practice it in a way that makes a meaningful difference in our world. And if we're going to close that gap between what we say is good and what we're actually good at.
Dr. Lisa: So I really want to talk to you more about the other kind of, the serious kind of kindness. I think you describe it as this deep kindness. Before we shift, though, just for the benefit of our audience, could you give me a couple of examples of what you see are being sort of common expressions of that confetti kindness that people might sometimes engage in? That maybe makes them feel good, and maybe is good on a superficial level? Just so we have something to kind of differentiate the two different kinds. What would be the confetti kindness? Are we talking like paying for the Starbucks and the car behind you? Is that what we're talking about? Like smiling at people? What?
Houston: And I think it's important that I don't want to holistically disqualify confetti kindness as a, quote-unquote, bad thing. Yeah, I don't think it is. Confetti kindness is an important piece of the puzzle. Just I think it's dangerous to mistake it for the whole thing. And I do think that there are elements of confetti kindness, that if we don't clarify the distinction, I think they sometimes can be dangerous. Here's a profound example that I stumbled upon in writing and researching the book. Sandy Hook, the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Profound tragedy, right? And oftentimes, in our world, we wait ‘til bad stuff happens before we do good stuff. That is the reactionary nature, I think that part of the book tries to fight back against but nonetheless, here's this tragedy. And so, people in response to tragedy want to be of service.
People want to help, people want to give kindness, and so on. Literally people from all over the world. They thought, here's this terrible thing that happened to young people, we're going to send stuffed animals. Teddy bears. So many teddy bears. In fact, the town of Newtown had to rent like a 20,000 square foot warehouse just to house all the inbound gifts including the animals. So now we're incurring a cost on the town who's already reeling, and one of the people that helped facilitate and create the candlelight vigil said that there were more stuffed animals in attendance than there were people. And in a really profound line, he said, “Don't get me wrong. A teddy bear is great.” But he said a stuffed animal doesn't pay for counseling. A stuffed animal doesn't pay for a funeral.
To me, kindness without empathy that lives beneath it, can sometimes be the sort of confetti kindness that we think is good. But in reality, in the giving of it, no matter how well intentioned it is, it actually serves me more than the person receiving. It's one of the chapters .
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, it makes me feels good to send a teddy bear. Whether or not you need it, or wanted a teddy bear. That’s what you're saying.
Houston: Exactly. A thousand percent. And I think we do that all the time, of well-intentioned kindness that doesn't actually meet or serve a legitimate need, because we want the quick win that our culture, I don't blame it directly, always on the individual. It's a culture who tells us this is what we're supposed to do in response to tragedy or pain, or if I don't know what to do. I lean on the thing that I see as most accessible. Those newsworthy stories of like, pay for the coffee and the person behind you, which again to have my coffee paid for is a delightful experience. And it gives me some level of, even a little glimpse of hope that day that someone else is paying attention to someone besides themselves. But it's also, doesn't guarantee that we're meeting some of the deepest needs that we're wrestling with as a culture. And the book argues that deep kindness is capable of that, if we know what it actually requires of us.
Dr. Lisa: Well, let's talk then more about that concept — the deep kindness. So, you've prepared us a little bit with, it's not easy to do, and it costs more on many levels. Take us into more of what you mean by that deep, deep kindness. What it is, and what we as individuals need to be doing, and thinking about in order to tap into that motherlode of kindness that sounds like it's much more meaningful.
Empathy, Emotional Intelligence, and Kindness
Houston: Yeah, I like to attach some adjectives to the word as opposed to trying to define it out, because the book really spends, the whole book’s trying to define it. But some of the words that come up most often would be specificity, intentionality, discipline, sacrificial, courageous, consistent. Those would be some of the words that come to mind when we're talking about the practice of deep kindness in our life. For a lot of different reasons, right? There are versions of deep kindness that are incredibly intentional, right? Meaning I've listened to you in a way that recognizes, understands your needs. So the thing that I am giving to you, whether it is my attention, whether it is something monetary, or whether it is words that you need in the moment. Those things are cultivated by a deep sense of understanding, listening.
One of my favorite lines of the book is that “The kind of kindness the world needs is one that listens well in order to love better.” So that sort of easily forgotten-about skill of listening and how critical it is to informed kindness, talk about our willingness to connect this idea of courage. I think sometimes we fail to realize how scary a lot of actions of deep kindness can be, right? What are the fears that we wrestle with? And I'm sure this resonates with your work of, what are the traumas that I've experienced? What are the things that I'm fearful of, that I don't always associate to the practice of kindness because sometimes, if I'm thinking about confetti kindness, those feel worlds apart. Like yours is this fluffy, happy thing, and my fear of failure, my fear of rejection or the shame that I have around something? Where is that line?
A simple example for my life would be I have a fear of failure, and fear of not doing things that I feel like I should do well, perfectly. I've spent my life, past decade, speaking in schools about kindness. I feel like I should be pretty well equipped to deliver kindness in a moment of need. And then my grandpa got sick with stage four pancreatic cancer. And I had one of these bizarre experiences at least, I don't know if you've ever had this before, where you are in a moment where you know it's the last time you're going to be with a person. This was my grandpa. And he was in Maine, and I live in Los Angeles. I was visiting Maine partially to be with him, and I'm sitting in the room before my flight, and I recognize that this is probably the last time I get to be with my papa.
And I feel like moments like that put a sort of a bizarre pressure on saying, like having this like, quote-unquote, perfect experience with this person you love. And I wanted to tell them, all the things I admired and respected about them. But then I had this internal pressure on myself, I'm the kindest person I've been talking about, like it should… I should be able to communicate this so perfectly right now. And in my fear that I wasn't going to do it right, I didn't say anything at all. We just talked about motorcycles. I gave him sort of a fragile hug. And then I left. And even walking out the door, I was like, I'm going to need to write him. I need to film a video for him. I need to communicate the things I didn't communicate there. And it took me three weeks until finally I felt like the circumstances were just right. I meditated, I was on this hike, and I filmed this video for my grandpa, and I sent it to him. And I get a call from my mom that shortly before the video arrived, my grandpa had gone into a coma, and he passed away later that night so he never got to watch the video I sent.
We talked about fear of failure, in a lot of the traditional metrics of cultural success of, “You just got to start that business you've been thinking about, or you got to work on this thing that you're avoiding.” But I- what the book tries to do is attach those insecurities as fears that we have, how that prevents us from actions of deep kindness. We, of course, want the people we love to know how much we care about them, especially before they passed perhaps. And in my desire to quote-unquote, do it right, I didn't do it at all until it was too late. So those are some of the things that come to mind initially, right around this idea of what makes kindness deep. Well, sometimes it requires us to be courageous in the face of the things that we're fearful of. Sometimes it requires us to pay closer attention and listen to people better so that we can actually meet a need, as opposed to just making us feel good and the action itself.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, but that it requires so much self-awareness to get into that place. And I also want to thank you for sharing that story, and I have not had exactly that experience. But I'm well acquainted with it. The feeling of regret, of thinking about what I should have said, or should have done for someone that I cared about, after it was too late to do it anymore. And it's the most terrible feeling. But in the moment, there are all of these reasons why the things that we do, whether they're kind or not, always make sense to us subjectively. Without a very high degree of self-awareness and our own patterns and our own, like the usual suspects that when we're not being kind, or it's kind of we'd like to be “Why is that?” and you're able to identify that one of like being worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. Mine is usually because I'm too busy to think that deeply about it, right, because I'm going in 500 directions. And I think that though, is such an important concept, that we all have our barriers. Like what are you telling yourself in the moment, when you're choosing to not be as kind as you could be? I think is what I'm hearing here.
Houston: Yeah, absolutely. The premise of the framework of the whole book is what gets in the way. That's sort of the primary question that about four years ago, I had this humbling sort of paradigm shift in my own work, where I realized for like six straight years, I've been trying to convince people on the value of kindness, and I realized everyone already agreed with me. I thought that the more fervently I could tell people that kindness is important, the more they would just do this thing that we already agree is worthwhile. But to your point, I think the more powerful exercise that we need to engage in, for a more kind world is to, to equip ourselves and to be equipped with the tools for powerful self-awareness around kindness by asking ourselves that question: what gets in the way? And the framework of the book is sort of three categories: incompetence, insecurity, and inconvenience. Incompetence meaning what are the things-
Dr. Lisa: Right here?
Houston: Yeah, yeah. No, yeah. There's a whole chapter on being busy. And there's a ton of research on how, in fact, one of the more powerful stories I'd heard many years ago in a TED talk, and I've done deeper research around it in a time since, was a study in the 70s at Princeton Theological Seminary School. You know, this one?
Dr. Lisa: Well, yeah. Tell the story, though. It's a great story. I love this.
Houston: I'll tell the distilled version because it gets to a more pertinent point here, which is there’s a group of students to one building and said, “Hey, you're going to deliver a practice-”
Dr. Lisa: Priests? Student priests? So people like devoting their life to God, aka Jesus, who taught to be kind and loving to people who needed help, particularly.
Houston: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And they told half of the students that they were going to give a practice sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is a story of stopping to help strangers in need. And so to the other half of students, “Hey, you're going to give a talk on job opportunities in the seminary field.” Two pretty different kinds of talks, right? One passion sermon on helping people and the other one sort of powerpoint on jobs. In between building A where they were supposed to deliver, or they were preparing for the sermon or the speech and building B, where they were going to deliver the sermon or speech, the researchers intentionally planted someone in the middle. Obviously in need, doubled over in pain, because they wanted to know what the people who are actively thinking about compassion, in fact, about to go tell a story, a parable of talking about kindness. Would they be more likely to stop and help?
And the answer, of course, is no. The biggest determining factor as to whether or not someone stopped was how much of a rush they felt like they were. In how much time they felt like they had to get from building A to building B. And I asked students, I asked teachers, I ask any group I've ever worked with, I'm telling the story, I'm like, “Have you ever felt like you're in a rush between building A and building B? You ever felt like in-between point A and point B on your to-do list that we're actually just missing the whole point?”
One of my favorite articles is from the Wall Street Journal. It's called “Are You As Busy As You Think?” And it begs us to change the way we think about time in our brain. I love this simple paradigm shift. It says, “What if we were to never again be allowed to say I don't have time? What if I had to say, this is not my priority.” Because time is just simply a matter of how we prioritize. And ultimately, one of our most finite and precious resources is time. What we give our time to is what we value, whether we say it out loud or not. What we give our time to is what we value. So think about how many hours you'll spend today in your inbox, versus reaching out to a family member or a friend, a check-in, a moment of gratitude. It is a matter of attention allocation. That's one of the ways I describe deep kindness. It's how we allocate our most precious resource of attention. And a practical strategy if you're into this kind of thing is, you have a to-do list which we are, collectively as a society, I feel like, very drawn towards because checking things off is what culture tells us is a metric of love ability. If I'm productive, I am worthy, I'm worthwhile. I'm getting things done and so I am good.
And so we will write down things we've already done just for the feeling of checking them off. My challenge would be right above your to-do list, right a one item to-be list, which is I want to be kind today, or I want to be grateful today, I want to be present today, and then assign yourself, one, five minutes or less task, it's still something you have to do. But to live into that thing that we want to be and visually prioritize it above your to-do list, to represent “this is the thing that I actually care about.” But the irony, of course, is those things that are collectively we could agree as, quote-unquote, most important… when we get busy, they're the first things that go unless we make them important by allocating their proper time to do them.
Dr. Lisa: I love that idea… to get really clear around the big picture of values and priorities that supersede the stuff. Because I mean, everybody, I think can relate to this idea of like, “I want to be kind. I want to be a loving parent, a good partner, XYZ.” And we have all this crap on our to-do list, and get super stressed out, and then yell at the first person we see, be it spouse, kid, whatever. It's so easy to get swept away by all this stuff. And while we are kind of talking about that, “Who do you want to be? How do you want to show up?” can you speak a little bit to anything that your research might have shone a light on, related to how to be more accurately empathetic to the needs, or feelings, or desires of others? Because when we were talking a bit ago, you talked about a kindness that often happens that is for the benefit of the giver.
In some ways, it makes me feel like I am being kinder, loving, if I do XYZ to, or for you. That can sometimes really be incongruent with what the recipient is really needing, or feeling, or wanting. And I think that this can create so many problems, particularly in even intimate relationships, because we often sort of instinctively give love or kindness in a way that would be gratifying to us, as the recipient. And it can be very difficult for people to shift the locus of their awareness from their own selves into that of someone else to think, “What would feel good for them?” and then act accordingly. And empathy can be tough. Do you have any insights, or thoughts even about how one can cultivate the ability for empathy inside of themselves? Like that accurate understanding of how another is feeling?
Houston: Yeah, it's a great question. There's so much research that I love, some of which comes from Dr. Michele Borba, who she says, as anxiety goes up, empathy goes down. She says some of the biggest barriers for a more kind world is anxiety, fear and narcissism, which are all increasing. So there's one element here, which is the sort of self-assessment like you were talking about earlier, which is to say, ‘what is preventing me from listening or tapping into how you're feeling right now?’. Well, a lot of times, it is my own fear that I'm not going to be able to meet those needs, if I do genuinely listen to them. Or perhaps it's my anxiety. If I have too much to do, I'm so busy so that when I'm quote-unquote, listening, I'm not actually listening, I'm worried about the next thing that I'm supposed to be doing. So as part of it, that's just like a good reminder of what prevents me from the experience of empathy, oftentimes, are things that are pretty commonplace to all of our lives at this point, in the current reality of the world, which is fear, and anxiety, and narcissism.
And Jamil Zaki out of Stanford wrote an amazing book called The War For Kindness. He says a good paradigm shift for a lot of people, including myself, was empathy is not actually an action unto itself. It's an umbrella term that encapsulates a few different skills. He breaks it down into thinking, caring, and sharing. And so empathy as an idea, is actually a lot of different micro skills coming together to work together toward something. Sharing, you would describe that feeling sharing. It's actually something we're pretty innately born with, right? When we smile near a baby, a baby smiles back. It's just one of the first things that we develop, but we can improve that. We can improve our emotional awareness of others by more accurately tapping into how we're feeling on any given day.
So one of the exercises I give in the book is to talk about “How do we escape the classic four feelings?” which is mad, sad, glad, and afrad. Afraid, but I like the rhyme. People on any given day would say, “I'm sad or mad.” When in reality, maybe you're not mad, maybe you're disappointed? Or maybe you're not sad, you're lonely, right? Like there's different variations on the theme. And the more accurately I can assess that in myself, the more clearly I can begin to identify that and others. When I know how you're feeling more accurately, I can better meet the needs to match that feeling. The second skill is thinking which is perspective-taking. And it's that exercise of “What does this person need based on their life experience?” Not what I think they need based on mine, but what could they need based on their context, their life? And that requires a lot of good question asking. That requires research. That requires like, “I want to know you, Lisa, as an individual, but I might also have to learn more about where you live and Colorado.” Maybe about what your family is like, maybe about the industry that you're in — psychotherapy. What you do in that industry? There's lots of things that I can learn about you that helps me contextualize the reality of world. I know you have children, I got introduced to one earlier.
There's so many things that begin to shape a story of your life that I can help me take perspective. And then the last one is caring. And I think this is actually really important. In the research that we're doing as a as a curriculum company, we build tools for schools. A lot of schools say “We want more empathetic kids,” but the reality is this: you can create more empathy without having any actions come from it. Meaning, I can feel bad for you and do nothing to alleviate that pain. That happens all the time. And so how do you actually take it from thinking and sharing, into caring, which they would call compassionate action? Right?
Empathetic concern is where my feelings and my perspective of you actually transform into kindness. I have to do something right. Compassion in Latin means to suffer with. To do something to alleviate that suffering is the key ingredient. So I would start there, just like for my own awareness, what actually is empathy? There's a lot of different components operating at once. Let's give ourselves some credit that it's a complicated skill set that we're working towards. What gets in the way? Anxiety, fear, narcissism. And then from the more practical standpoint of how do we actually do this? How do we actually meet some of those needs? And you sort of alluded to it earlier, but you give yourself language to identify those needs.
Dr. Gary Chapman has the amazing book Five Love Languages, where he talks about this idea that we give and receive love in different ways. And sometimes the way I most naturally give love, or want to receive love rather, is the way that I most naturally give it. And I speak the language that I receive. And so to have that framework to know that, well, I might feel most loved when someone's complimenting me or affirming me. That the person across from me might best receive love by me just spending time with them — connecting, having meaningful, deep conversation. We're looking for different things. And once I have a framework to know what those needs are, I can begin to better meet them. If I were to offer one really practical exercise, that was a paradigm shift for me, when my own mom went through stage four colon cancer. I watched the community around her want to help. Just because we want to help doesn't always mean we know how to help or what that person needs. And one of the common questions when you're struggling is, “How can I help?” which actually projects more stress onto the recipient of that supposed help than the person asking it in the first place? Because when I'm drowning, I don't want someone be like, “Hey, what do you think you need?”
Dr. Lisa: “How can I help you?”
Houston: Yeah, right. So I think, a practical strategy there, if you know someone who's going through something of any kind, emotionally, physically. instead of asking, “How can I help?” provide them with even a very short menu — the shorter the better — menu of options. So there's sort of two ideas here, right? One is just like, “I'm going to do something to meet your need,” which is projecting what I think you need. And there's a, “How can I help?” which puts it entirely in the corner of the other person. And then there's the opportunity to curate that to say, “Hey, you know what I could do, I could run and drop these things off to the post office for you, or I could make a lasagna. Which one would best meet your needs this week?” So now you give them two choices, they have a sense of ownership in that process. So they don't feel like they're being pitied. And they get to choose into the thing that allows them to most meet whatever needs they have in the moment. So if I were to offer a really practical exercise, after all of that context, it's to not ask how I can help and to not just give help randomly, but to provide a small menu that gives them a choice, autonomy, and honors listening, in order to most effectively meet needs.
Dr. Lisa: That's amazing. That's really great. I mean, honestly, I might use that with some of the couples that I work with, because I think, in personal relationships too, again, the sort of reflexive, “I'm going to do something for you,” that doesn't.. isn't hitting the mark. Or a request to tell me “How I can help you with?” which also doesn't feel good. But like being observant enough to say, based on what I'm seeing, and what I understand about you, I imagined that I could help you in two of these ways, “Does either sound good to you?” And like to be an active participant but also like making space. That's wonderful. So I know, do you have a few more minutes to talk with me? Or do you have another?
Houston: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Lisa: Actually, I have two more questions for you. And so you mentioned my son who wandered in. And one of the things that has been on my mind, and I know on the minds of many of our listeners of this program, any of our clients here at Growing Self who have parents—parents—children rather, is particularly in the life space that kids are growing in right now, where so many of their interactions are through video, if at all. And also in the context of more and more time, and energy, and attention being spent in systems like YouTube, for example, that are designed very intentionally to hold the attention of little and older minds. And also though, do so in a way or and through social media that is hooking people in because it is recreating a lot of the experiences that people have in relationships. That's why it is so powerful and holds so much of our attention is because it feels very relational, even though it's not in the same way. And so, you mentioned a few times in our conversation that you spend time with schools and developing curriculum.
And really with us, I'm imagining an objective of raising kind, empathetic, genuinely compassionate kids who have this way of being, and has empathy for others, and the ability to act compassionately in a meaningful way. I'm curious to know how your curriculum may try to sort of like — I'm struggling to find the right words — like combat, this other experience that kids are having that is not relational, and that is occupying so much of their time and attention. Because my understanding of the way that empathy is developed naturally is through relationships. I mean, being in relationships with other humans where there's kind of a caring that goes back and forth. Is that part of the conversation in your programs or your curriculum about like, how to achieve these goals that you have in the context of the environment that so many kids are spending so much time in?
Houston: Yeah, I mean, one of our sort of questions that we offer schools and families, it comes from a friend of mine, a guy named Keith Hawkins, who is a great speaker and spoken at lot of schools. And I saw him speak one time in front of a roomful of student leaders, and he goes saying, “How many of you have had a parent or guardian in the past month, at the end of the day asks you the question, ‘What did you do for others today?’. Not ‘How was your day? Not ‘What did you learn today?’ But the question, ‘What did you do for others today?’” And literally a room of 4000 student leaders, high achieving kids… zero hands go up. Crickets, crickets.
And we say both directly and indirectly, we believe as a culture, as families, as school, as educators, we have to ask that question. “What did you do for others today?” So our curriculum tackles that and a few different ways. One of them, and is sort of the more passive approach of will be called values clarification, which we know, especially in middle school, or high school, identity formation, that age is a really big deal. And helping students have a framework to develop that, offering them prompts, by offering them space and conversation, and bringing their voice forward to say “This is the kind of person I want to be,” and not projecting them what they're supposed to be. But rather giving them autonomy and building that. And then giving them accountability to say, “Hey, you said you wanted to be this thing. This is what this could look like this week. Let's practice it. Let's try it. What does this look like?” And we come back to that week-in, week-out. So we begin to create a practice around, “What did you do for others today?” Which is talking about in some ways that to-be list concept. “I want to be kind. I want to be present. I want to be fun, right? I want to be happy.” Whatever the things that people say, we start to build things around that that actually put young people into action with a structure of accountability where we come back and talk about that on a weekly basis. And then we offer that, of course, as a direct thing, which is, “Where can we ask this?” Well, in some of the schools we work with, they put, as they walk into the class, as they walk into the school building, it says, “What will you do for others today?” And as you walk out, it says, “What did you do for others today?”
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Great.
Houston: One of our favorite premises or quotes is the Samuel Johnson quote. It says, “We need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed.” It's some of these things around being kind, or good, or generous to each other. So often, we take them for granted because they are so commonplace and yet, they're sometimes the things that we need to be reminded of most frequently. So I think, part one in some ways, it's just having the language and the recognition that we're not asking these questions as a culture. Part two is empowering people, in the situation, we're talking about educators to effectively create space for those more authentic relationships. So our content, especially coming into this new school year, we've totally rewritten everything to adapt to the current reality, which is that students first and foremost need tools for stress, and coping, and resilience, right? We all need that, for mental wellness. And we need tools around empathy, building compassion. We need tools to talk about social and racial justice. So those are some of the things that our content’s trying to help support schools with. But every lesson, the first third of the lesson, is dedicated to community building because social connectedness is the most important ingredient to mental wellness, and preventing teenage suicide, which we know is increasing in numbers. And so those first ten, fifteen minutes are always dedicated to practical relationship building by giving and people prompts to talk about themselves, to talk with each other, to engage with each other, to get to know each other better. And that's what we've discovered, it's not that kids don't want to do that, it's that they're just not often given the framework, or space, or challenge to know how to do that. So that's something we try to provide tools around and to teach.
Dr. Lisa: And what wonderful advice for children, but for adults too. To be able to take some of those same takeaways around if I want to be a more compassionate kind of interconnected person, needing to have time and space where I'm interacting with people, and being able to maybe even ask myself some of those questions too. Around “What am I going to do? What did I do?” And really kind of like, having an almost an accountability piece there for yourself. And very lastly, and kind of relatedly, and I know that this is a very big question, and so please don't feel like you need to give the alpha and omega of the final answer because big stuff here. But you know, as we're talking, there are a lot of really difficult things happening in the world around us that can feel very overwhelming. Particularly I think, is one person just kind of like observing what's happening to others. Like, you know, we were just chatting when we first started talking to each other. You mentioned that you lived in Venice, California. Huge homeless crisis there. I mean, people like, intense on the sidewalk, right? There's also, I mean, at this point, 200,000 people who have passed away from coronavirus. And also I mean, the level of racial, not even intolerance, but overt hostility and aggression that we see being kind of directed at certain racial groups in our country right now. I mean, these are really big problems that we are all bearing witness to.
And I guess I'm curious to know, I mean, I know for me personally, like wanting to do something to be kind, or to be helpful, one small point of light into this darkness. And I think, it's one of the reasons why I do this podcast, honestly, is to try to be helpful in some small way to the larger world. But, for example, if you had an army of kindness, like compassion agents, that you had trained and deployed onto the streets of Venice Beach, what would they do in response to the suffering, even just in that community? Like if you had a magic wand and could have them do anything? What would this look like in action? On a larger scale? Because it is a large scale in the world for us? Right? Not unless you're talking about the United States. We could go further. But like, what would you do?
Strategies to Be Kind in Action
Houston: Yeah, I think that's part of what Dr. Borba would say is preventative for us is a sense of anxiety or overwhelm. If there's so many things to help that sometimes it's easier just to say, “That's impossible. I can't do it. Also, I won't do anything.” A high school student who I worked with once, who stood at the front door of his school for two straight years, he got to school an hour early. He never missed a day. I said, “Why did you do this?” He goes, “I realize I cared a lot. But if I tried to do everything, I'd end up doing nothing very well.” I think there's wisdom there for all of us.
Brene Brown’s work is incredible. I love Dr. Brene Brown for all the practical insights she gives into empathy and compassion. Among them she says, in all of the data she discovered, that the most compassionate people are also the most boundaried. She meant, they said no to a lot of things. The things they said yes to, were actually really rich and important and meaningful. All that to say, I think there is power, first and foremost, in deciding on your pocket of the world that you want to focus on. For one reason or another. Whatever one feels most purposeful for you to dig into most consistently. Make that your little 1% shift. Like 45% of our day, they would say is habit. So if I can change this 1% to be more compassionate, more kind, more directed at this thing that feels like a problem in our world of which there are many. I'm laser focused on one. That's a big deal. For us, organizationally, the conversations around racial justice, and equity, and education, specifically equity through the lens of social and emotional learning has been the most important thing for us organizationally, especially during this time to think about. Me personally, it's the one that I've been wanting to wrestle with the most. So we have systems organizationally to put a focus on that. We have court every quarter. Not only do we talk about where we're going next in the business and things like that, but every person in the organization sets a character goal. And we have an overall goal, which is something that we will keep for the entire quarter. And then every week, we also write out like publicly in our communication channel. We write out, we rewrite out our overall goal every week. And then everyone also writes out a work goal and a home goal. These are this is our version of a consistent to-be list.
So me, my quarterly goal, my overall goal that every week, I'm reminded of every week, I actually have an accountability partner in my organization, and every week at our weekly team meetings, I have to say out loud. Whether I'm on track or off track with this goal, is to reflect on a reading about equity, and social justice publicly in our communication channels. So I'll share the article and then I'll share something I've learned from that article or that podcast. So, I have accountability that's very visible for the group of whether or not I am doing that. Everyone else in the organization has their own goals that are related to their own things that they want to work on. For some of them, it is as big as racial justice. For some people, the bigness of that issue is actually more like, “I need to get a better work life balance, and I'm going to dedicate at least one night a week to a thoughtful date night with my partner.” Both of those have equal merit, in terms of what the magnitude of is important to in our personal life. And so creating space, and accountability, and clarity around how to make incremental improvement towards that thing, is, I think one of the best things that we can do as individuals. Whether you're in an organization or not, find an accountability partner, set a goal for the next three months, what that thing is going to be and check in. Maybe it's a person you already get coffee with, or someone in your family or a friend or a co-worker. But make sure that that is an explicit focus.
I hold that statement, in balance with also this recognition of there are some things that we get to privilege ourselves out of being involved with. And I think that if we are not, all of us, engage with the conversation around race in our country right now, that is something where I think all of our to-be lists should have some focus on. Whether that's your ongoing quarterly goal or not, I don't know what that looks like for you. But holding in balance the things that are pressing socially, and recognizing when we get to choose our way out of those things, is an important component of self-awareness that will drive some I think those decisions moving forward. So it's a really big question. You're right. And I think our natural tendency is to say, “This is so big, I don't even see my part in it.” But the recognition that our 1% individual change over time is going to be the most impactful thing that we can do for ourselves. And for our culture, I believe because the messiest work that is available to us, is the kind that recognizes that for all of these things, I'm a part of this problem and I can be a part of the solution. I try to do everything but I’m doing nothing very well. So let's choose one thing, and make it a priority with our time, or energy, or resources. Because this sort of kindness isn't free. It requires disciplined pursuit, clarity, with consistency, with effort, and the cost of something. And it usually costs us time and comfort.
Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking on that topic. I know that it's on the hearts and minds of many. And I really appreciate your sharing some of your strategies that get focused, and it doesn't almost matter specifically what it is, as long as you're willing to commit and be consistent. And also have accountability and structures in place. I heard you say partner with people, create community to help keep going in that direction, and know that it matters, even if it feels small at all. It matters. So this has been such an interesting conversation. I'm so glad that you and I were able to connect today, and I know just on behalf of my listeners — thank you for all of the wonderful ideas that you've shared. Now if people wanted to learn more about you, and your organization, and your book, and all the stuff you're doing, tell us more about how they might learn more about you, and how they could get involved.
Houston: Yeah, yeah, so the book, when you're listening to this, it comes out September 29, 2020. And you can find all the information about that deepkindness.com. You can always find or follow me on all the social media. My name is Houston Kraft. Houston like the city, Kraft like the K for keys. And if you want to learn more about Character Strong, if you're an educator, or have a passion for education, young people can always find that at characterstrong.com.
Dr. Lisa: Thank you so much. Well, I'll be sure to keep in touch with you, and see what kinds of interesting things you guys all do going forward. And thank you again for today. This is a lot of fun.
Houston: Thanks for chatting