Sunday, November 27, 2016

And Again

I seem to be on a kindness kick this month because last week I stumbled on an  article by Emily Esfahani Smith  entitled, "Masters of Love" that appeared in the June 12, 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

Smith's article looks at the research of psychologist John Gottman. In the 1970's, social scientists began to wonder why the divorce rate was escalating; they sought to identify the factors that make or break a marriage.

John Gottman's research is a major contribution to this effort. Gottman discovered that the #1 predictor of divorce is... contempt.

Because when you're contemptuous of someone, you're just being mean. You're assuming a position of superiority over the other person and deliberately belittling that person and his or her feelings or concerns. You're fueling a long-standing attitude of negativity towards the person in particular and your relationship in general.

In short, you're communicating a measure of annoyance and disgust. And in doing so, you're demonstrating an underlying lack of respect for your partner. Over time, this attitude will erode a relationship to such an extent that it will either end entirely or continue on, haltingly and unhappily.

As Smith points out, Gottman argues that there are two types of relationship participants: "masters" and "disasters." The relationship "disasters"among us operate in fight-or-flight mode, but physiologically and emotionally.

As Smith notes, "Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked."

By contrast, "masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable." This doesn't mean that they never fought; it means that when they did fight, their experience of discord and disagreement was far less disastrous, both to the health of both partners and to the relationship in general.

These observations lead Gottman to argue that the key to a successful marriage or relationship is kindness and admiration.

Unlike the "disasters," who "are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes," the "masters" cultivate a "culture of respect and appreciation"--as Gottman puts it, "they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for," a mental habit that they constantly bring to bear on their relationships with others.

And this constant mental exercise bears fruit. As Smith points out,
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
"Masters" have cultivated the strength it takes to be kind and generous, even when they don't feel up to it and this, in turn, translates into successful relationships and/or a happy marriage.

To become a "master," though, you need to practice.

Practicing kindness doesn't have to involve constant gift-giving or self-sacrifice. In fact, simply being happy at someone else's good fortune can go a long way towards strengthening the muscles of kindness in one's psyche.

Or, trying giving others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming that people are out to get you or deliberately doing things to annoy you, assume that they probably mean well (don't ignore obvious evidence to the contrary, of course). If there's evidence that the intention is good, go with that.

This one is tricky, though, because you don't want to fall prey to what my best friend and I have come to refer to as "Operation Butter-Up." For those of us with Caretaker or "Rescuer" tendencies, people with less than honorable intentions can work their magic on us all too easily.

We want to believe that they "mean well," so we feel guilty when we have to say "no" or when we try to draw a line in the sand and assert our own needs and feelings.

The key, I think, is to measure the extent to which you feel that you are operating in a space of trust and intimacy. If the Sabre-Toothed Tiger that is your spouse suddenly, voluntarily, offers to do something "nice" for you, watch out.

If the general atmosphere isn't (or hasn't been) one of overall kindness and generosity, chances are, you're getting a dose of Operation Butter-Up.

In that case, be firm about your boundaries: "no" means "no," and if they mean you well, they'll understand and respect that, even if they don't like it all that much.

Because kindness isn't about an absence of conflict or disagreement. Kindness is about responding to conflict or disagreement in ways that don't demean or belittle those around you. It's about demonstrating a generosity of spirit, even when you may not feel all that generous, because you haven't lost sight of the overall admiration and respect that you feel for the person you're interacting with.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kindness Again

"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." --Franklin D. Roosevelt

What a week.

It had quite a bit more emotional turmoil than usual, and for my part, I decided I needed to take a step back from it all and just... breathe. And knit. And talk to my cats. And do some yard-work. And read.

Today is World Kindness Day. I really hope at least a few people can get on board with that. Because we really do need a lot more of it in the world right now.

Ironically, one of the things I've been reading lately has everything to do with the phenomenon of kindness--specifically, an act of unkindness known as "mobbing."

"Mobbing" is often considered synonymous with "bullying," but there are some key differences. In particular, according to, "bullying" is "typically perpetrated by one person although others in a workplace may join in." 

Mobbing, on the other hand, "involves a group of people whose size is constrained by the social setting in which it is formed, such as a workplace. It might seem to the target as if many people are involved but in reality the group might be small. The group members directly interact with a target in an adversarial way that undermines or harms them in measurable, definable ways."   

Although mobbing involves a group, there is usually a "ringleader"--someone who is essentially instigating the behavior and/or recruiting and then egging others on. They may do so directly and aggressively, or they may practice what psychologists call "relational aggression"--that is, they attempt to harm the "target" or victim by damaging or attempting to manipulate the person's relationships with others.

Most people are familiar with "relational aggression" in the context of adolescence. Because females are somewhat more likely to practice relational aggression than males, it's often thought of as the "mean girls" phenomenon. 

As Ditta M. Oliker points out in "Bullying in the Female World: The Hidden Aggression Behind the Innocent Smile" (Psychology Today, Sept. 3, 2011), 
The words now associated with female aggressive behavior include: excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking).  Most damaging is turning the victim into a social "undesirable".  The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless...  The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.
I first blogged about mobbing about six years ago, thinking about its connection to what's known as "group polarization."

More recently, I read Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry's Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Bullying and Aggression (2013). 

As Duffy and Sperry point out, bullying and relational aggression become "mobbing" when the management of an organization--specifically a workplace--not only allows the behavior to continue, but either participates in it directly or covertly sanctions it.

Because the ... wrinkle... in current HR policy and practice is, mobbing and workplace bullying are not illegal.  

Wrong, yes, absolutely, but not illegal. Mobbing cannot be considered harassment or discrimination, unless a victim can prove that s/he is being targeted because of their "protected status." 

In effect, a victim is put into a position of actually wishing that someone would say something sexist or racist, so that s/he could take action against the behavior. 

That's a bad place to be, emotionally and psychologically.

In addition, although many would say, "Oh well, it's just work, why do you care?", as Duffy and Sperry point out, work is a major component of our lives.  It's often a source of self-esteem and self-definition--to say nothing of a resource for friendship and social support or contact.

On this point, Duffy and Sperry cite the claims of Janice Harper, an anthropologist who writes about mobbing. Harper was "accused by colleagues and students at the University of Tennessee of trying to get information about uranium so she could build a hydrogen bomb"--an accusation that led to her being subject to and ultimately exonerated by an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Harper states, "Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that if you are being mobbed that those closest to you might betray or hurt you. What I am telling you is that in almost every case I guarantee they will...". As Duffy and Sperry conclude, "In a society where the line between work and personal relationships is fuzzy and blurred, the loss of work relationships during a mobbing is devastating."

Ironically, the victims of mobbing or workplace bullying in general are almost never accused of incompetence. Paradoxically, in the midst of outrageous claims (like "she's trying to build a hydrogen bomb"), no one ever says that the person is, you know... bad at their job.

That's because, sadly, the targets are usually people who are more than competent employees. They're often extremely good at their job, actually, and this may in fact be one of the reasons why they were targeted for bullying or mobbing in the first place.

As The Workplace Bullying Institute points out, targets of workplace bullying are often more competent than those who attempt to bully them. They are typically "independent" and "more technically skilled" than the bullies, "ethical and honest" and generally "non-confrontive."

One warning sign of a possible instance of workplace bullying is ongoing gossip that a co-worker is emotionally unstable or overly reactive. In many such instances, the facts often suggest that the person has been constantly goaded and/or mobbed until s/he suddenly "snaps" and responds aggressively.

When this happens, the victim is immediately chastised for inappropriate aggression--ironically, s/he is sometimes accused of "bullying" others. 

However, as psychologists routinely point out, conflicts and/or the verbal outbursts that may accompany them-- limited, context-specific, non-physical, non-abusive, largely infrequent displays of temper-- are actually not uncommon or inappropriate in a healthy workplace.

So the very fact that someone's brief display of anger is immediately highlighted as "abnormal" is, in many ways, a red flag that may indicate an unhealthy work environment. As Duffy and Sperry note, "Such labeling of victims as 'disturbed' or 'unstable' after they have been egregiously provoked and then responded with anger or another emotion is classic in workplace mobbings."

Why might co-workers mob or bully someone? As Oliker points out, "Motivation ...  usually includes: a desire for power, for control, for achieving greater social status and popularity, jealousy, fear and derailing competition."  

According to Duffy and Sperry, one of the earliest--and most easily remedied--signs of mobbing is what they refer to as "unethical communication." In the 1980's, Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann "emphasized the significance of unethical communication in the development and acceleration of workplace mobbing"--he argued that it "both ignit[ed] workplace mobbing and ... power[ed] it once it got started." 

Duffy and Sperry offer a long list of behaviors that fall under the category of "unethical communication," specifically, "gossip, lies, rumors, innuendo, ridicule, belittlement, disparagement, humiliation, false information, dissemination of such information, failure to correct false information, leaks of personal and confidential information... isolating a worker, ignoring an employee, giving an employee the 'cold shoulder'."

You get the picture.

General, run-of-the-mill unkindness is ultimately what sparks mobbing and workplace bullying. And it's on the rise: recent estimates suggest that approximately 30% of all workers have experienced some form of bullying in the workplace.

The good news is, it's probably not that hard to stop participating in unethical communication or to recognize it when we hear it. 

Once we become aware of what it is and how toxic it can be, we can make a concerted effort to stop it (if possible) or, at the very least, refuse to participate it. And if we occupy managerial positions or positions of authority in the workplace, we have an ethical duty to intervene and stop it.

If and when we do, we will be one step closer to making kindness an everyday occurrence.