The Kindness Challenge
:A little kindness makes a big difference in any relationship. In The Kindness Challenge , bestselling author Shaunti Feldhahn reveals three small changes that you can make to transform any relationship. She explains why certain actions matter so much...
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:A little kindness makes a big difference in any relationship.
In The Kindness Challenge, bestselling author Shaunti Feldhahn reveals three small changes that you can make to transform any relationship. She explains why certain actions matter so much and provides a specific 30-day plan on what to do to build a very simple habit that will change any relationship for the better. You can transform hurting relationships into healthy ones and good relationships into great ones by modifying mindsets and changing habits.
Shaunti Feldhahn is a popular speaker, best-selling author, and groundbreaking social researcher. Her findings have been featured in media as diverse as Focus on the Family, FamilyLife Today, the New York Times and Cosmo. With a master s degree from Harvard University, Shaunti has worked on Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Now she applies her analytical skills to illuminating surprising truths about relationships. She and her husband, Jeff, live in Atlanta with their two children.
:Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. —Philo of Alexandria
I’ve seen a remarkable pattern during a decade of surveying thousands of people about their inner insecurities and needs—a pattern that upends all our ideas about what leads us to thrive in life.
I’ve seen what makes us miserable and what lights us up, and as you might guess, it makes a big difference when our needs are being met and when others know how to avoid hurting us. It makes a big difference when we experience fulfillment at work, and love and appreciation at home.
But above all that is one greater factor: whether we thrive depends far more on how we choose to treat others than on how we ourselves are treated. In fact, when handled well, that one factor often leads to those other things that light us up. When handled poorly, it often leads to misery. The path to our happy place starts with one choice: whether or not to be kind. Especially when we really don’t want to be.
In the pages ahead, we’ll tackle the surprising truth of what kindness (or unkindness) really means in practice and how easy it is to be unkind without ever realizing it. You’ll see how kindness can transform your home, romantic partnership, parenting, leadership, school, workplace, church, sports, community, governance, job. . . . Our kindness matters in so many places, and it is where and when we least want to give it that it has the greatest power to transform.
We’ll explore how much kindness matters in our personal and professional relationships. Do you want to get along well with people and help others do the same? Most of us do. Is there a specific someone with whom you want or need a better relationship? Most of us have that too.
It turns out the seemingly gentle quality of kindness has an explosive power, but we don’t always know how to unleash it. What are the specific, simple steps that make the difference? Why do certain actions matter so much and work so well—in any type of relationship or for our whole culture? How can you apply them so you become a person whose life is marked by kindness and so you and those around you thrive?
I’ll be sharing the what, why, and how of the most practical and strategic answers in the chapters ahead, including a specific how-to plan that we call the 30-Day Kindness Challenge. I’ve seen this Challenge transform thousands of relationships: those between spouses, colleagues, families, and business and social partnerships. But better still, it also transforms us.
The Life-Changing Power of Kindness
If you’re like the majority of those we’ve surveyed over the years, a few things are true. Most of your people problems don’t stem from the big systemic issues but from the little ones. You don’t like living with difficulty and strain in your personal life, in your workplace, or in society at large. You are willing to show more graciousness, kindness, and generosity to have better relationships. But you’re busy, stretched, and frustrated, and you may think some little act won’t matter. Or you’ve tried everything you can think of, and those things haven’t worked. Perhaps you don’t know how or where to start, so the end result is the same: you’re living with a contentious situation that is reducing your enjoyment of life.
Yet in most cases, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The research is clear: so many of our everyday relationships today don’t need to be hurtful or difficult. Once your eyes are open to this, you’ll see two types of kindness that have great power to transform:
1. Targeted kindness that is specific to one individual—for example, a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, child, classmate, or colleague— with whom you want a better relationship.
2. Broad kindness that impacts the many people you encounter and thus the culture at large.
Although we’re focusing primarily on targeted kindness in this book, all the principles can be adapted broadly for society.
It turns out that kindness is made up of three distinct elements: areas of thought, word, and action we may never have connected with kindness before. As we investigate these, most of us will discover dozens of ways we have been unkind and never realized it—ways we have been sabotaging ourselves and our personal relationships, workplace effectiveness, activities, and enjoyment of life. Becoming aware of this “kindness blindness” is a surprisingly powerful outcome all by itself, but we’ll also discover kindness strengths that we did not know mattered and upon which we can build.
This book will help us figure out which specific elements of kindness we need to work on and how, identify specific actions we might need to do (or not do!), and then dare each of us to take the 30-Day Kindness Challenge, not just to improve a specific relationship but to be part of a culture-transforming movement. And once we put these elements into practice, that’s when our eyes will be opened to what truly matters most—both for our lives and for those relationships that are most important to us.
Here’s what this will look like.
Road Map for the Journey Ahead
Part 1 of the book shows why kindness, above all other character traits, is particularly important for thriving in life, work, and relationships, and yet why we are so easily deluded about how kind or unkind we actually are.
Part 2 unpacks the three elements of kindness and the 30-Day Kindness Challenge so each of us can identify our own individual patterns of kindness (or the lack of it) that we may never have noticed before.
Finally, in Part 3 you’ll find specific tools to help put kindness into practice in the form of daily tips for whatever version of the 30-Day Kindness Challenge you choose to do. (You can also sign up for daily e-mail reminders and personal assessments at JoinTheKindnessChallenge.com—including a printable Self-Assessment Action Plan for before and after the Challenge—find links to social media tools, and get resources for doing the Challenge with others or with your organization.)
To get the most out of this process, I suggest that you read the book with a pen and journal or notebook within reach. Circle or jot notes about those things that apply to your life and to the person (or people) with whom you want a better relationship. Capture what you most need to tackle. Then, when you actually do the 30-Day Kindness Challenge, you can track your learning and progress, as well as how the other person responds, and get advice from others. As you continue to apply that learning, you will improve how you approach that person, make adjustments, track his or her reactions to those adjustments, and so on. Soon you will have walked yourself along the road to life-altering transformation in that relationship—and in our culture.
Want to take the Challenge? Let’s get started.
Why a Little Kindness Makes a Big Difference
Kindness Makes the World Go Round
The Surprising Importance of a Simple Challenge
On a winter day ten years ago in Colorado, I was speaking at a women’s conference, sharing some research about men from my newly released book, For Women Only. I explained the surprising discovery that men doubt themselves far more than women realize and thus value respect even more than love. I saw a lot of interest, excitement, note-taking, and conviction as I shared what our men and our sons see as respect or appreciation—or a lack of it.
Then came the question-and-answer time. A dark-haired woman stood up, and her pretty face was an expressionless mask. “I know you say a man’s greatest need is to feel that I respect, trust, and appreciate him. But what if I don’t?” She explained that her marriage was crumbling due to decisions her husband had made. She no longer respected him, no longer felt admiration or appreciation, and certainly didn’t want to take the actions I had just outlined. It was a contentious relationship, and she was feeling pretty hopeless.
In the decade since then, I’ve interviewed and surveyed thousands of men, women, and teens around the world, and I have heard that dynamic many times—not just about difficult or distant spouses, but also in-laws, colleagues, kids, classmates, parents, teachers, neighbors, whole departments at the office, and rude drivers on the freeway. Every one of us has a relationship (or four) that makes us crazy or that we wish was in a better place. Every one of us also has relationships that we enjoy—and we kind of wish they were all like that. Most of us want to be the one who plays well with others, right? We want to get along with those around us.
And sometimes that comes easily. But sometimes it doesn’t. We know we should be nicer to a fellow student, reach out to a colleague, or let that rude driver merge without being rude ourselves. We should avoid snapping at our kids, rolling our eyes behind Mom’s back, or withholding affection from a spouse. But sometimes we’ve been so hurt, frustrated, or disrespected, we’d rather vent because it feels good to say what we’re really thinking. Sometimes we’re just busy and have too many other things on our plate to worry about politeness or managing a challenging relationship. Or sometimes we muster all our self-control and leave the field of play so we don’t say what’s on our minds. We step away and ignore the conflict, throw ourselves into something else to take our minds off of it, call a friend for support, or talk with others who will understand. (We may even seek comfort from our special friends Ben & Jerry.)
Regardless, we’re not happy with where the relationship is or where our level of irritation is, but we don’t see any path toward change.
That’s where this Colorado woman was on that winter day when she acknowledged that although it might be her husband’s greatest need, she didn’t respect him.
I had no idea how to answer her. So I recommended something I’d heard from author Nancy Leigh DeMoss only a few months before—a challenge to try a particular way of interacting with a husband for one month. I told the woman I was so sorry for the deep struggles in her marriage, explained Nancy’s Husband Encouragement Challenge, and suggested that she try it and see what happened. Soon after, we wrapped up the women’s conference and I flew home.
“It Changes Everything”
From the moment Nancy shared that challenge with me, it caught my attention. In the years since, I’ve investigated it in depth, adjusted and added to it, and researched it again.
Three years after that conference, I was in another part of Colorado, speaking at a weekend women’s retreat that also included a luncheon with Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson. He spoke for a few minutes and then opened the floor for questions on relationship topics. Near the end, one woman asked, “What if I have shut down in my marriage and just don’t like my husband anymore? I know he needs appreciation, I know you say he needs me to trust him, but I can’t. What do I do?”
Dr. Dobson looked thoughtful. “Hmm, that’s a really good question.” Then with a slight twinkle in his eye (since he could have answered her in a heartbeat), he turned to me. “Shaunti?”
Picture me gasping and thinking, Uh, no pressure! I gathered my thoughts and looked at this sorrowful woman. “I know this is such a hard time and I’m so sorry. But I do have a suggestion for you, drawn from a thirty-day challenge that we’ve been researching and experimenting with the last few years. . . .”
After I explained the challenge, she nodded and sat down and another woman stood up. But she didn’t ask a question. Instead she turned to the other woman and said, “If you really do that, you’ll find it changes everything.”
Then she looked at me. “You won’t remember me. But three years ago, you came to my church to do a women’s conference. My husband and I were in a really bad place. I asked a very similar question and you gave a very similar answer. Everything in me wanted to ignore every word you said. But I also didn’t want my kids to grow up in a broken home. So I did it. And it was the beginning of saving our marriage.”
As she continued, she started to get teary eyed—and so, I must confess, did I. “My husband and I have worked through so many things. Today we have an amazing relationship. We’re not perfect, but we love being married. Our kids have a mom and dad who are now committed to each other for life.”
Kindness Is a Battlefield
Using the insight of Nancy Leigh DeMoss (now Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth) as a starting point, and via the seven hundred participants in our research study, we’ve spent years investigating, refining, testing, and quantifying specific steps that make a huge difference to any relationship. I’ll be sharing those in the pages ahead. But when it comes right down to it, the bottom line is pretty simple: be kind.
The concept is simple, but that doesn’t mean it is effortless, in part because we really don’t know how to be kind. You may find that absurd. But I promise you: you almost certainly don’t. At least not in the way that works best. And what works best is what I’ll be walking you through in this book.
The other reason kindness isn’t easy is that it is under siege. We live in an age and culture that have become markedly unkind in many ways. People have always had a remarkable capacity for both graciousness and harshness, but today it seems that harshness is more easily let loose.
People today routinely say things over social media, e-mail, and text that they would never utter out loud or face to face. Road-rage confrontations are common. Politicians viciously attack each other, and television news commentators talk over each other. Mean girls openly roll their eyes at school, and bosses feel it is perfectly acceptable to express their disdain at work.
Kindness is easily quashed unless we are purposeful about both protecting and showing it. But we often aren’t. On a cultural level, kindness simply isn’t a priority today. (Has anyone seen a reality-TV show titled The Sweetest Housewives of Atlanta lately?)1 And on a personal level, our priorities often fight against it! We are encouraged to let our feelings out, to stand up for ourselves, to look out for our rights. We hear statements like “You don’t have to take that from him,” “You show her who’s boss,” “You deserve better.” Alternatively, we’re essentially told to become cold, to back off, to withdraw, to say, “Yes, dear,” to hide our feelings here and vent them elsewhere—or to shut off our feelings entirely, suck it up, and check out. Or maybe we’re not purposefully cold or checked out, but we’re just busy enough that our attention is elsewhere, which amounts to the same thing in the end.
Kindness—true, engaged kindness—takes effort.
But it is also essential. And something inside every one of us is longing for it.
“Who Doesn’t Want a Kind Home?”
As I was conducting an impromptu interview for this book with two businessmen in a coffee shop,2 one of them described the longing for kindness perfectly: “Living in an unkind world is highly dissatisfying. Who doesn’t want to come home to a kind home? What kid doesn’t want to get off the school bus and meet a kind mother or father? People don’t want to work in a hostile workplace— they want to work in a kind one. Not soppy and sentimental, but kind. Everyone wants colleagues who respect them. But the perfect situation, which most people hardly let themselves hope for, is both respectful and kind.”
I mentioned earlier that in all my years of research, a common denominator in whether people enjoy life is whether they are giving and experiencing kindness (which, for many people, is simply the outward face of unconditional love). When I shared that conclusion with the businessman, I could tell he was wrestling with the thought.
“But I wonder,” he mused, “can one really single out kindness as the most important thing for enjoying life or enjoying relationships? Why is kindness, as opposed to something else, so important?” He chuckled. “After all, I would really enjoy life a lot if our business took off and I had twenty million dollars rolling in.”
His colleague chimed in, “But even then, I’m going to buy kindness. I’m going to hire people who are nice to me. All those other things we want are just a means to enjoyment, right? But we won’t really enjoy any of them if we can’t also get kindness in the bargain. It’s another way of saying peace, I think.”
The first man said, “Yes, but peace isn’t enough. Peace is almost neutral. I think we want more than that. We want actual kindness. That really is it.”
A One-Two Punch
Why does such a simple tool, being kind, bring such dramatic results to restore, build, or improve any relationship we care about? Because it improves how we feel about another person, and it ultimately makes us want to be kind.
After all, think about it. Let’s say you are irritated with someone (your boss, husband, wife, mother-in-law, teenager). If you tell that person you’re irritated and then you tell someone else you’re irritated, are you going to be more or less irritated? The answer is obvious. And yet, what if you’re irritated but you don’t talk about it? What if instead you set out every day to be kind to them and about them—to find, for example, something positive or praiseworthy about that person—and then you tell them and tell someone else? Are you going to be more or less irritated? Also obvious!
When one of my corporate clients, Nadia, heard what this book was about, she told me of her experience years ago working in a new city with a harsh boss, and how she regularly wanted to vent with another colleague who also bore the brunt of their boss’s poor management style. But the colleague would have none of it.
“If you are negative,” she said to Nadia, “does it really change anything in the end?”
“Well, it sure feels good to vent all the frustrations,” Nadia responded. “But no, I guess it doesn’t really change anything.”
“You’re wrong.” Her colleague leaned in. “It does change something. It changes you.”
Nadia was so struck by that, she began to watch and emulate her colleague. This woman was very successful in business, but Nadia saw more than that. She saw graciousness in the face of harshness. Generosity in the face of stinginess. Patience when their boss was exasperated. She saw someone she wanted to be.
Practicing kindness made Nadia want to be kind.
As I listened to the qualities of Nadia’s colleague, I found myself wishing I myself was so much more like that. In fact, the description reminded me of someone else. I don’t know whether Nadia or her colleague embrace a Christian faith, but as I listened, I couldn’t help but think, This sounds like the way the Bible describes Jesus. (I should mention that although my research is scientifically rigorous and applies to readers across all demographics, including race, age, and religion, I also do quite a bit of work in the church community. Many of my books bring in faith-based applications—including this one, since kindness is famously central to the teachings of Jesus.)
In a well-known sermon recounted in the gospel of Luke, Jesus called out, “Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. . . . Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.”3
And the research shows that as we similarly show that kindness—even when it is undeserved—something changes. Not necessarily in the other person, not yet, but in us.
That is the most basic and important change that occurred in the life of that woman in Colorado. As she started to be purposeful about looking for the positives in her husband and avoiding the tendency to focus on the negatives, her “But what if I don’t respect him?” question went away. She started to notice those things that were worthy of praise but for which she hadn’t really given him credit. The problems didn’t loom quite as large in her eyes. She started to feel a sense of appreciation for and trust in her husband again. She began to want to show him the respect I had been talking about and that he so needed.
She wasn’t the only person who changed. Her husband responded less defensively and opened up more to give what she needed. And the positive cycle continued. Her new mind-set, words, and actions didn’t magically solve some other very real problems, but those steps sure made the problems easier to deal with.
She discovered the power of kindness. And you can too.
Ready? I’ll show you how.
The 30-­Day Kindness Challenge
If kindness is really a power-packed means of transforming relationships, how can we put it to work? I’ve mentioned a tool called the 30-Day Kindness Challenge. It is designed to build a sustainable desire for and habit in each of three key aspects of kindness: avoiding negativity, finding and praising the positive, and performing kind actions that matter to someone else. There are also some important alterations for specific groups of people (in particular, men doing this for their wives), which I’ll cover a bit later. But here is the primary challenge.
Pick someone with whom you want or need a better relationship. And for the next thirty days do the following:
1. Say nothing negative about your person, either to them or about them to someone else. (If negative feedback is unavoidable—such as when you as a boss, teacher, coach, or parent need to address a mistake—be constructive and encouraging without a negative tone.)
2. Every day, find one positive thing that you can sincerely praise or affirm about your person and tell them, and tell someone else.
3. Every day, do a small act of kindness or generosity for your person.
That’s it. So simple. But the three aspects of kindness are like three chemical elements that, when they come together, react and build something different: something remarkably beautiful, powerful, and, above all, transformative.
In our research, no matter who did the Challenge or on whom they were focused—a romantic partner, colleague, stepparent, child—as long as participants practiced those three habits, 89 percent saw improvement in their relationships. The graph below shows results for those who did the Challenge for a spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend.
Simple Changes, Big Results*
Do you believe your relationship improved as a result of the 30-Day Kindness Challenge?
Yes, there is a distinct, noticeable improvement. (For example: we are definitely closer, or we argue less or let things go more, or…) 42.7%
Yes, there is general improvement, although it is hard to pin down what has specifically changed. 46.7%
Total Improved 89.3%
No, our relationship hasn’t improved. 10.7%
You may be thinking, Okay, so if all I need to do to take the Kindness Challenge is to follow these three steps, why am I holding a whole book about it? What else could I possibly need to know?
Embarking on the 30-Day Kindness Challenge with no additional input is a bit like rebuilding a damaged house with no outside help. Wouldn’t it be way better to rebuild that house with advice from seasoned friends, a few targeted DIY videos, and maybe even a contractor or two? You’ll be far more effective and productive when an experienced friend works beside you and says, for example, “You may not realize it, but behind that panel are two pipes, so make sure you cut here instead of there.”
This book works the same way (as do our daily reminder e-mails, selfassessment quizzes, and other resources you can find at JoinTheKindness Challenge.com). And as you’ll see in the chapters ahead, all of us need this coaching because there are so many ways we’re simply blind to how kind or unkind we actually are. For example, if I asked in what ways you are regularly negative toward others, you might say, “I’m not!” right up until the moment you go through chapter 6.
In the chapters ahead, you’ll discover specific patterns to look for that might be sabotaging your relationships without your even realizing it. And you’ll learn simple adjustments that will eliminate the bad patterns and boost the good ones. Most of us think we’re pretty good at figuring out how we’re doing at relationships, and yet kindness blindness may be tripping us up. I’ve spent quite a few years on the research to help us be able to identify our individual blind spots (so we can fix them) and opportunities (so we can seize them). If you want to learn more about the research, see the methodology chapter online at JoinTheKindnessChallenge.com or at my main website, Shaunti.com.
In short, the pages ahead will help you uncover the ways you’re good or bad at practicing relationship-altering kindness and support your DIY process to build the house right.
* Unless otherwise noted, all survey charts in this book show results among those who did the 30-Day Kindness Challenge for a romantic partner for two weeks or more.