Kindness Is a Skill
Practical tips for fighting a culture of savagery.
By David Brooks
Jan. 28, 2019
I went into journalism to cover politics, but now I find myself in national marriage therapy. Covering American life is like covering one of those traumatizing Eugene O’Neill plays about a family where everyone screams at each other all night and then when dawn breaks you get to leave the theater.
But don’t despair, I’m here to help. I’ve been searching for practical tips on how we can be less beastly to one another, especially when we’re negotiating disagreements. I’ve found some excellent guides — like “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable” by Daniel Shapiro, “The Rough Patch”by Daphne de Marneffe and “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker — and I’ve compiled some, I hope, not entirely useless tips.
The rule of how many. When hosting a meeting, invite six people to your gathering if you want intimate conversation. Invite 12 if you want diversity of viewpoints. Invite 120 if you want to create a larger organism that can move as one.
Scramble the chairs. If you invite disagreeable people over for a conversation, clear the meeting room, except jumble the chairs in a big pile in the middle. This will force everybody to do a cooperative physical activity, untangling the chairs, before anything else. Plus, you’ll scramble the power dynamics depending on where people choose to place their chairs.
The best icebreaker. To start such a gathering, have all participants go around the room and describe how they got their names. That gets them talking about their family, puts them in a long-term frame of mind and illustrates that most people share the same essential values.
Tough conversations are usually about tribal identity. Most disagreements are not about the subject purportedly at hand. They are over issues that make people feel their sense of self is disrespected and under threat. So when you’re debating some random topic, you are mostly either inflaming or pacifying the other person’s feeling of tribal identity.
You rigidify tribal identity every time you make a request that contains a hint of blame. You make that identity less inflamed every time you lead with weakness: “I know I’m a piece of work, but I’m trying to do better, and I hope you can help me out.” When tribal differences are intractable, the best solution is to create a third tribe that encompasses both of the warring two.
The all-purpose question. “Tell me about the challenges you are facing?” Use it when there seems to be nothing else to say.
Never have a meeting around a problem. If you have a problem conversation you are looking backward and assigning blame. If you are having a problem conversation you’re saying that one episode — the moment the government shut down — was the key to this situation, rather than all of the causes that actually led up to the episode. Instead, have a possibility conversation. Discuss how you can use the assets you have together to create something good.
Your narrative will never win. In many intractable conflicts, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each side wants the other to adopt its narrative and admit it was wrong the whole time. This will never happen. Get over it. Find a new narrative.
Never threaten autonomy. People like to feel that their options are open. If you give them an order — “Calm down” or “Be reasonable” — all that they will hear is that you’re threatening their freedom of maneuver, and they will shut down. Nobody ever grew up because an angry spouse screamed, “Grow up!”
Attune to the process. When you’re in the middle of an emotional disagreement, shift attention to the process of how you are having the conversation. In a neutral voice name the emotions people are feeling and the dynamic that is in play. Treat the hot emotions as cool, objective facts we all have to deal with. People can’t trust you if you don’t show them you’re aware of how you are contributing to the problem.
Agree on something. If you’re in the middle of an intractable disagreement, find some preliminary thing you can agree on so you can at least take a step into a world of shared reality.
Gratitude. People who are good at relationships are always scanning the scene for things they can thank somebody for.
Never sulk or withdraw. If somebody doesn’t understand you, not communicating with her won’t help her understand you better.
Reject either/or. The human mind has a tendency to reduce problems to either we do this or we do that. This is narrowcasting. There are usually many more options neither side has imagined yet.
Presume the good. Any disagreement will go better if you assume the other person has good intentions and if you demonstrate how much you over all admire him or her. Fake this, in all but extreme cases.
As you were reading this list, you might have thought the real problem was other people’s obnoxiousness, not your own. But take an honest look at yourself. You just read all the way to the end of a piece of emotional advice written by a newspaper columnist.