Unkind niceness - when is being nice actually harmful?

19th April by George Warren

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March marked the culmination of a 13-month Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching with the AoEC. A beautiful learning experience, which I’ll be sharing more of on my newsletter for those who coach, the Edge of Coaching.

Today, I’ll explore an idea stimulated from a challenge I received on the course:

I’m too nice.

Specifically, how I was showing up as a coach, consciously or unconsciously, might be harming my client’s ability to share how they really feel or tell me if something isn’t working. The idea being that they might feel that they don’t want to hurt my feelings.

Pow! Impactful stuff and plenty to reflect on there. It echoes feedback I have had from friends and colleagues and was the reason given for one break-up.

This stimulated a question for me. Are we sometimes nice to others as a way of protecting ourselves? Creating some padding and protection for our fragile sense of self?

Do we lead with niceness, bending and moulding our authentic self in order to appear likeable to the other person?

When we interact with someone, are we being really nice because that is how we are really feeling, or are we protecting ourselves from social rejection?

Aside from the clear risk of being taken advantage of, what are the dangers of having only one rigid, default ‘nice’ operating system with others?

Nice to others to protect ourselves

I’m sure there is a situation where you have held back from telling someone how you really feel because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. In that very moment, it might have seemed like the kindest thing to do.

If we slow it down, in that micro-moment, we’re deciding to withhold data and feedback that might really help the person. We’re perhaps assuming that they won’t ‘be able to handle it’. Or, going deeper, maybe we’re coming from a place of fear that they may show anger, defensiveness, criticism back to us in return.

And, played out again and again, that person might grow to have a warped, distorted set of data by which to live their life.

Played out again and again, you’ll also feel the need to deceive - to be untrue to yourself, incongruent with who you really are.

Perhaps, we don’t have to be cruel to be kind. But we can be clearer on the difference between being nice and being kind.

Maybe, for some of us, it’s about being real to be kind.

And, maybe it is about being nice from a place of inner confidence.

Kind to others, unkind to ourselves

What interests me is that, sometimes, those who are outwardly kindest to others aren’t always so inwardly kind to themselves.

Sometimes, the default is to give time, energy, love, compassion to others - family members, colleagues, friends, children, charitable pursuits. But to give so much, that the well runs dry for ourselves.

Other times, it seems we have an outward voice of compassion and forgiveness, but turned inward the voice becomes critical, judgemental, blaming and fearful.

Outer compassion, inner criticism?

Whether it is filling our own cup first or putting on our own oxygen mask, I wonder if some of the work to be done is to dissolve that imbalance, that barrier between outward compassion and inner compassion.

To recognise that kindness towards ourselves is like the glue that keeps us together. It is the healthy, sustainable wind in your sail which powers you to go forth and help others. To live a satisfying life.

The greater love, happiness and strength you cultivate inwardly, surely that increases your capacity, energy and passion to help shine that outwardly?

The nice rescuer

One of my favourite models at the moment is that of the Drama Triangle. It sits under the broader psychological field of Transactional Analysis - essentially, studying how people interact.

Developed by Stephen B. Karpman, the theory suggests that in most human conflict conversations, we can step into - or be pulled into - three roles: Rescuer, Persecutor, Victim. As folks I coach or supervise will know, I have much to say on this model.

Let’s look at this through niceness. I share an encouragement to watch out if you are - consciously or unconsciously - rescuing others. Under the fluffy cloud of niceness, sometimes we can smother, we can stifle, and we can pull an individual into the victim role by how we act towards them.

Remember our - at times - fragile sense of self from earlier? Sometimes that can get a nice little massage by feeling important and by rescuing someone in a conversation or interaction who might not want or need to be rescued.

Your regular rescuing, under a misty veil of niceness, might be trapping someone in dependency, in victimhood and might be just as harmful to them, if not more, than persecuting them.

Nice isn’t always nice. It can stifle, it can mask truth and it can be untrue to who you really are.

I don’t agree that nice guys finish last. But I encourage us all to communicate - internally and externally - to lead with truth and kindness.

This is my truth, tell me yours.

Our sincere thanks to coach and AoEC Faculty - George Warren. You can check out his latest reflections and articles which are shared via the Edge of Coaching and Slowing Down newsletters and tune into his brand new podcast series - the Edge of Coaching here.