These are rapidly changing times, in part due to the frenetic pace of technological innovation. How we communicate, connect, love, hate, and elect presidents are forever altered. Given this, educators, parents, and corporations are focusing on cultivating 21st century skills – skills like problem solving, synthesizing information, interpreting, collaboration, and kindness. These are skills that prepare us for the increasingly complex life and work environments of the 21st century, and reflect the changing nature of work, communication, and how we use technology to facilitate our lives.
I believe that of these, kindness is the most critical 21st century skill, whether your goal is a civil society or successful business. Kindness is at the hub of our pro-social selves and is the glue of civilization. It allows us to understand the world through another’s eyes and act meaningfully in that world.
What is kindness? Kindness means interacting with others in friendly, generous, and thoughtful ways. It means performing acts to benefit others without expectation of reward or benefit for oneself.
For that reason, forcing acts of kindness sabotages the motivation to be kind, and a display of good manners does not automatically mean that a person is kind. Good manners can exist in the absence of generosity and thoughtfulness, and can be motivated by the hope of reward and praise.
Kindness is distinct from other, related aspect of our pro-social selves. For example, sympathy refers to the concern for and understanding of someone else’s distress, feeling pity toward the misfortune of another, especially those perceived as suffering unfairly. In contrast, empathy is the capacity to experience what another person is experiencing, including thoughts, emotions, and sensations, all from the other person’s frame of reference. It leads to an attuned response from the observer. And compassion, perhaps the pinnacle of our pro-social self, is empathic and sympathetic awareness of another’s suffering coupled with the drive to alleviate it. Think Mother Theresa, although compassion does not need to be that elevated, complete, or grand.
So kindness is at the hub of all these aspects of our pro-social selves. Kindness does not emerge out of a vacuum nor is it innate. Kindness instead is the result of core, crucial skills and capacities that lay the foundation for kind behavior and kindness as a moral compass. These capacities of the sine qua non of our pro-social selves: perspective taking, emotion regulation, moral reasoning, and modeling. Each of these skills allows kindness to emerge, and without them is impossible.
Here, I want to focus just on perspective taking. Perspective taking is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes, to understand that someone might think and feel differently than you do. Perspective taking allows us to feel sympathy and empathy.
In Psychology, perspective taking is part and parcel of Theory of Mind, which describes how we have a latent “theory” or belief about how the world works. This theory assumes that other people have minds, and that these minds think and feel and believe things that are distinct from what we think, believe and feel. In disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, where social understanding is disrupted, Theory of Mind and perspective taking may not develop fully or in ways that we see in typical development. In very young children, Theory of Mind and perspective taking is evident when a toddler plays a trick on someone, or surprises someone. To be surprised, one must not know something that another person does know. They must have their own mind.
In our current political climate in the U.S. as well as nations all over the world, kindness and civility appear to be crumbling. Xenophobia and “us versus them” thinking is ascendant. One of the most effective ways to combat this, I believe, is to practice perspective taking, make a habit of trying to understand what and why a person might be experiencing the world in the way that they do. Practicing perspective taking will nourish kindness in us all.