Kate Sheehan: Committed to Kindness

photographer: Wadem through Flickr Creative Commons

photographer: Wadem through Flickr Creative Commons

Last Spring I was fortunate enough to attend Computers In Libraries, which is a really great conference.  After a full day of learning and feeling inspired by the workshops, I was waiting in my hotel room for my colleague.  She came bursting in the room and said, “You are not going to believe what I just heard.”  She rifled through her bag and pulled out her notebook.  “I went to a talk about the Darien Public Library and one of the librarians quoted the Dalai Lama and said that”  flipped the page in her notebook and read directly from her notes, “Our  chief export is kindness.”

Well, my first thought was yay!  I’m not alone.  There is another librarian co-conspirator, kindness evangelist out there.  I must meet her!  Unfortunately, I did not get to meet the woman who said those words; but, I did track her down by email at the Darien Public Library in Darien, CT.  She blogs at: Loose Cannon Librarian.

In the interest of not inconveniencing her too much; I asked her if she would generously answer a few questions for me that I could then share on Civil Civil Servant.

I have posted my questions and her responses below, only editing a typo or two and changing the original order.

At CIL2009 you made the comment that kindness is the chief
export of your library.  You wrote about that comment on your blog.
Could you briefly summarize your view of how kindness fits into
libraries and why you believe it to be our chief export?

My dear friend is a med student (actually, she’s in an M.D./Ph.D program, so when she’s done, I get to call her “Dr. Dr.”) and I was visiting her when she was taking this class that was (to my untrained eye) the bedside manner class. I started calling it her “how to be a person” class. Med schools have figured out that bedside manner is important. Medical types even studied it: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1659065,00.html Most of us aren’t doctors, and we don’t have the skills to judge our medical care on anything but our interactions with our doctors, so that’s how people decide if their doctor is “good” or not. A doctor can give an accurate medical explanation of something, but we can’t hear it if all we’re thinking about is how much of a jerk s/he’s being. We don’t have to worry about malpractice in our profession, but we should take note.

If someone wants help finding articles on a topic and I help them, but make them feel bad about it, they won’t feel like they got help. It won’t matter if they leave with a stack of articles and an armload of books that are perfect for them. If I’m a jerk, that’s all they’ll remember. If I’m nice to them and they feel like I’m on their side in tackling their problem, they’ll have good warm fuzzy feelings about the library and they’ll feel helped.

How do you cultivate kindness in the workplace, especially when
serving the public which can sometimes be stressful and with difficult
coworkers?

I think kindness is something we all need. Working with the public can be exhausting and we have to be kind to each other and ourselves. Front lines staff need back rooms where they can let off steam and management that understands that someone in the back grousing isn’t necessarily going to provide bad service when they get back in front of the public. Of course, there are nuances to all of this – chronic complainers can be poisonous to organizational culture, but even the most saintly among us are going to have days where they are “out of nice” and that’s okay.

Also, as everyone who works on the front lines know, there are always going to be upset patrons who can’t be placated, no matter how nice and accommodating we are and there are always going to be mismatches. That is, there will always be those people who don’t like your brand of kindness, no matter what. I’m not advocating smiles and hearts and teddy bears and a total disconnect from reality. Nor am I saying that kindness trumps good librarianship – you can’t be nice and give people bad information – or that we have to be doormats for abusive people. We have to be kind to each other and ourselves as a foundation for being kind to our patrons.

Have you had any negative reactions to your use of the word,
kindness?

Not to my face, but I’m sure it’s out there.

How do you approach resistance?

Resistance to kindness? I think most people aren’t going to come out against kindness, exactly. I’m sure there are people who think it’s too touchy feely and too soft and fuzzy to be taken seriously. It is touchy feely to talk about and focus on kindness. But I do think it’s a big part of being a service organization. People shop at stores with nice and helpful staff, they use companies where the employees are nice to them.

In your blog post, you mention kindness as a lifestyle…what is
the impact of that choice?

That’s an interesting question. There are a lot of studies about kindness and altruism having positive effects on us (I’d like to put in a plug for CogSciLibrarian – both the blog and on twitter for great links to fascinating research about what makes us tick).
Here are a couple of articles, but there are about a billion more out there:
http://uncnews.unc.edu/content/view/2688/71/
http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200607/pay-it-forward

I like to joke that everyone should have to work retail for a period of time because once you’ve done the job, you won’t be rude to store clerks ever again. It’s easier to be nice to people when we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. I’ve focused in on the word kindness because I think it helps to have a focal point, but I don’t want to be too glib. It’s easy to get into bumper sticker idealism and that’s not realistic. Everyone has bad days, everyone gets grouchy or feels put upon sometimes. But I think if we look past those moments with the people in our lives and make an effort to forgive ourselves and each other for our bad days, it really does result in more happiness for ourselves and better interactions with each other and our patrons.

Have you always been this way? 🙂  What I mean is how did you
cultivate this belief system in yourself?

Both of my parents are social workers and a lot of their friends are in mental health as well. I grew up around a lot of people who help other people for a living. There’s a certain kind of gallows humor that goes with those fields, I think. But there’s also an intense interest in other people’s experiences. When we had people over for dinner, the entire conversation could be taken up talking about other people and how they operated in the world. People who work that closely with other people are so immersed in seeing things from everyone’s point of view. I think it could be seen as a weakness, that ability to see a situation from all sides and it can be almost paralyzing. To put it in a bumper sticker quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (which I think gets attributed to Plato, but I’m not sure of the accuracy).

None of this is to say that I’m kind and understanding all the time, just that I try. I can see how important it is to be kind by my own bad days.

I knew I would love this post and I do.  There are so many things that Kate shared that resonate with me which perhaps will be a post in itself in the next week or so.  I can’t thank Kate enough for sharing her beliefs with us.  On August 31st she published a post on her blog entitled Auditing Kindness.  It is filled with some great ideas.  I suggest you head over there and participate in the discussion she has started.

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