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

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,

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:

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.


Is Kindness Trending?


At Powells last year, I was responsible for keeping the Business section shelved and orderly.  One book caught my eye:  Kindness Revolution by Edward Horrell.  I loved this book.  At some point, I’ll write a post just about that book.  For now, I’ll summarize it very, very briefly by saying that it is a book about cultivating a culture of kindness in the workplace from the TOP down.

At the library where I work right now, I’m responsible for collection development in the business and self help areas.  I’ve recently noticed a flurry of titles about kindness and compassion that were not spiritual in nature.  There are plenty of books that stem from a religious or spiritual base that discuss kindness and compassion; but, fewer outside the Dewey 200s.

Here’s a few that I’ve noticed in the last 6 months.

  • Art of Being Kind by Stefan Einhorn
  • Do One Nice Thing by Debbie Tenzer
  • Age of Empathy by F. B. Waal
  • Cost of Bad Behavior by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath
  • Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy by Dev Patnaik
  • Capitalizing on Kindness: Why 21st Century Professionals Need to be Nice by Kristin Tillquist
  • On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor
  • Compassionate Samurai by Brian Klemmer
  • Love Leadership by John Hope Bryant

I have not read any of these books though, On Kindness will be added to my Fall reading list.  In Booklist, the reviewer June Sawyers writes,

Phillips and Taylor argue that in today’s fast-paced, anything-to-get-ahead culture, kindness “has become our forbidden pleasure.” Kindly behavior is perceived as both dangerous and suspicious, nothing less than empty sentiment and simplistic moralizing.

I have often felt that even using the word, kind, plants a seed of suspicion in people which I have always found odd.  It’s almost as if the topic of kindness and compassion has become off limits, distasteful or inappropriate.  I’m anxious to read this exploration of kindness, that includes a historical perspective on attitudes towards kindness.

All of these books have me thinking: is kindness trending up?  What is the sudden uptick in interest, especially in the business sector?  Has the recession brought with it a distaste for greed? Is it more that in a recession business leaders are willing to try anything, even being a little nicer?  In an earlier post, I reference an article in the NYT that talks about how desperate restaurant owners in NYC have decided to try and be decent to retain customers.

Or maybe it’s our president.  He does seem more compassionate than some of our last few presidents.  During the campaign, his “calmness” was frequently discussed in the media.  The recent fiasco over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates had an interesting conclusion…well…at least the media hype died down after the three men met and had a conversation.  What slipped by many media outlets or was deemed unimportant by them (perhaps more interested in what brand beer they were drinking), was the fact that Gates and the police officer had already spoken on the phone a couple of times before they met in person, both men showing some level of maturity and willingness to listen (one would hope).

Maybe the recession is moving us towards some values our culture hasn’t really highlighted in awhile: frugality, humbleness, a desire to hunker down and be more self sufficient.  I’ve seen quite a few books, interviews, news pieces pop up about preserving, canning, etc.  Let’s hunker down with loved ones and let the storm pass.

I’m not sure why the idea of kindness seems to be a topic of discussion lately; but, I’m all for it.  We need more kindness in the world.   Aldous Huxley has been credited with saying that after years of searching for happiness he discovered the best answer was “to be a little kinder.”

Perhaps we can all make that discovery too.

I May Be Lucky; but, I Still Occasionally Feel Sorry For Myself


July 7th.  It is a weird day for me.   Four years ago today I was riding my scooter down West 7th St. in Saint Paul, MN when I collided with a car that turned into my lane.  The driver was on his cell phone and he didn’t see me and he turned right into me.   I had just visited my friends at the library and a friend and her son in Lowertown.  I was headed home to make a lovely dinner for my partner.   My life so completely changed in that moment that I still grieve for my previous life while at the same time anticipating what my new life will bring.

I’ve talked to numerous other people who’ve been in traumatic accidents and many of them divide their lives into before and after.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the whole notion of before and after.

We assumed I’d get back on my feet enough to return to libraries; but, I did have to assess and really make sure that the library field was worth fighting for and if I didn’t return to libraries what then? Part of my recovery was spent in Portland, OR.  My first job after the accident was at Powells Books.  I worked at the smaller outpost on Hawthorne and loved it.  I loved the people.  I loved the books.  I loved the neighborhood.  When I got the job, I thought: I’m not spending more than a year here.  I knew it wouldn’t take very long for me to know how I was doing being back at work and I also knew that I couldn’t get too comfortable at Powells.  I spent exactly one year to the day there.

It is easy to get complacent.  It is easy to just let life go along propelled by inertia.  It is easy to get stuck in our ways.  Sometimes change comes in small ways: cutbacks at work bring more responsibility or we get a new boss who has different ideas.  Sometimes change comes in big ways like my accident.  It is really how we weather these changes that makes all the difference.  Change brings opportunity, even when it’s painful.  My accident brought to me the opportunity to learn things about myself.  It reminded me that I’m in control of what my life looks like and how I’m going to move through the world.  We make decisions all of the time.  Sometimes the decision is to do nothing.  If I  do nothing, I want to make sure it is a conscious choice.  It’s fascinating in so many ways.  In some specific ways the accident has taken things from me whether by physical limitation or by choice (no more scooter riding); but, in other ways it has opened up a whole new future.  I don’t quite get to do a do-over in life; but, something near to it.

People always ask the same questions; so, I’ll answer them for you: yes, I was wearing a helmet.  I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.  I broke a bunch of stuff and had a head injury.  The friend I was visiting prior to the accident would sometimes say, what if we stayed at the playground longer? what if you left sooner?  I can’t play those games.  I’d say I was damn lucky.  I crashed about 4 blocks from a level one trauma center.  The man who was in the car behind the guy who hit me was an off duty EMT.  He saved my life.  I probably would have bled to death in the few moments it took the ambulance to get there.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes, I feel sorry for myself.  Sometimes, I still deal with the emotional aspects of trauma and I get weepy.  Sometimes, when I can’t do something because of a physical limitation or I have a day filled with chronic pain,  I get pissed.  I try to allow myself the moment to feel sad or mad and then redirect it to feeling lucky to have another shot at living in this incredible world.

When we get bogged down in negative thinking, it is our choice to stay there and suffer or ask the questions that will give us a chance to reframe the experience.

This is different post for me.  One that is entrenched in the personal; but, really it is about navigating change and that is something we encounter in all parts of our life.  Sometimes change is within our control and sometimes not; but, how we deal with change is always in our control.

I’ve struggled with writing this one.  In fact, I’ve rewritten it seven times.  I don’t know how to tie all up in a nice neat package and I guess that’s okay.  And because now I’m one of those people:  wear your helmet and when you drive, just drive.  Please refrain from talking and texting.  You might just save a life.

Dynamic Duo: Jenna Galley and Leona

Jenna and Leona

While attending a workshop at NJLA’s annual conference this year, I noticed a small stuffed lion seated between me and the woman to my right.  The workshop presenter had us do a few little exercises with our seat mates.  We introduced our selves and shared the usual bits of information: where do you work?  Where do you live?  I learned her name is Jenna Galley and she works at the Peapack-Gladstone Library.  As the workshop wrapped up and people began making the typical noises of opening bags and rustling papers, I glanced one more time at the little golden colored stuffed lion seated next to me.  Jenna was preparing to leave, when I finally just had to ask.

What’s up with the lion?” And she answered,

That’s Leona.”

John Greene and Leona

John Greene and Leona

Brian Selznick and Leona

Brian Selznick and Leona

She proceeded to tell me a little bit about Leona and how she travels with Jenna to events and conferences and has her picture taken with authors.  I could have left it there, I suppose; but, I just had to know more.  I basically ended up slightly interrogating her about Leona and people’s reactions to Leona.  Jenna enjoys sharing the story of Leona with the people they meet; so, I don’t think I hassled her too much.  The best news is that she agreed to a bit more interviewing for this article.

It all started at PLA 2004 in Seattle.  Jenna attended a Between the Lions luncheon.  Between the Lions is a PBS kid’s show that uses puppets and storytelling to promote reading.  In doing a bit of research for this article, I discovered that it was created and designed out of existing research on how children learn to read and they expanded that research with their own studies.  Jenna was impressed with the Between the Lions people and became fascinated with the puppets, puppeteers and one puppet in particular: Leona, one of the stars of the show.  PLA was in the Spring of that year and the following Fall, one of Jenna’s colleagues gave her a gift: a small stuffed version of the character Jenna  had fallen in love with back at PLA.

It all kind of started out innocently.  Leona started accompanying Jenna to events and meetings, having her picture taken doing silly stuff and it was a fun thing for her coworkers to joke about.  Encouraged by a colleague, Jenna took Leona to PLA 2006.  The idea of having Leona pose for pictures with some of the authors took hold and the adventure began.  Soon the pile of pictures of Leona and authors started piling up and people started to expect to see Leona at the conferences.

Floyd Cooper and Leona

Floyd Cooper and Leona

kate dicamillo

Kate DiCamillo and Leona

When Jenna’s mother found herself in the hospital, Leona took time from her schedule to keep Jenna’s mom company and even with this break, the number of photos of Leona and her author friends is pretty substantial.  Leona has not only become a part of Jenna’s work family; but, she goes home with Jenna and has been welcomed as a member of that family too!

I loved meeting Jenna and her pal Leona and I love the doors that Leona has opened for Jenna.  Leona is an instant ice breaker and has helped make introductions to folks Jenna may not have ever met: authors, other librarians and probably random strangers too.

When I asked Jenna if she had experienced any negative feedback, maybe folks would just think a grown woman carting around a stuffed animal is weird, she said that she had always been a little quirky so it didn’t really matter.  Even the one cranky author has become a story to tell because really, how can you not smile when posing with Leona!

I’m a believer  that the meaningful, even if brief connection we can make with others is where joy lies.  There is such magic to be found in connecting with others and connecting with nature and in that magic there is a chance to experience joy.  I love that moment when a smile forms on my face because I just connected with another person.  Leona is a smile maker.  I’m sure Jenna would say that Leona has enriched her life in surprising ways.

Leona with the real McDuff (aka Sophie), star of Rosemary Wells's books

Leona with the real McDuff (aka Sophie), star of Rosemary Wells's books

Gloating, the Art of Reveling in Another’s Misfortune

fortune cookie

I was walking through the library today and overheard two patrons talking about a mutual acquaintance.  The one patron was gloating, experiencing pure glee at being right.  She kept saying, “I told her this was going to happen.”  She was smiling a shiny smile and radiantly animated in her retelling of this story and I began to wonder about the shear frequency I witness gloating and participate in gloating.

I do enjoy being right.  I think like many librarians, I’m slightly (Hey, it’s my blog and I get to determine which adverb  I’m going to use!) obsessed with knowing.  But, now, the question I ask myself is when does my need for knowing and my need to be right flood over the line.  When am I in danger of feeling satisfaction at someone else’s expense.

I’m going to try and observe these feelings in myself over the next several weeks and I’ll report back.

I’ve tried to ferret out a lot of negative thinking from my brain; but, these thoughts of self satisfaction still sneak through.  It would be easy to assume or state that I never have these feelings/thoughts; but, that would be misrepresenting that which is true:  I am human, with human failings.

How does this translate to the workplace?  How can we make sure we are supporting our coworkers instead of waiting for them to fall?  This is generally only difficult when faced with a difficult person.  It’s easy to support your coworkers who are team players and get along with everyone, who refrain from mean gossip and keep their end up.  It’s harder to be generous when it is a coworker who is difficult to get along with, who is themselves a gloater, who doesn’t pitch in and help others, who is a complainer or who is just grouchy and unpleasant.  This is where the challenge lies.

I, of course, have a little story to relate.  My ex, Kate, is an extraordinarily gifted listener and observer.  She is not a gossip and although she has human failings like the rest of us; she is not mean.  Several years back, she started a new job and it took no time at all to figure out that one her coworkers was quite difficult and to say she was not liked is an understatement.  She was grouchy, unforgiving, stingy with time and support and a  meddler.  Kate’s coworkers would talk about this person and Kate refused to participate.  As time passed, Kate noticed something.  The difficult coworker felt left out.  The next time there was an opportunity to invite this coworker to an after work gathering, Kate invited her.  She invited her again and again.  You know where this is going right?  This is not the Hallmark channel.  The difficult coworker did not completely change her ways and win a popularity contest at work; but, she did begin to feel included.  The gossip about her subsided.  Her meanness let up and she even meddled less.  She’s still not the easiest person to work with but the extreme tension in that office has dissipated and it has made it a better place to work and I’m sure their “customers” feel it too.  And considering that their “office” is the rehab unit at a level one trauma hospital, any positive adjustment in morale would be an enormous benefit to those they serve.

So, the question is….

What would happen if instead of gaining satisfaction in a difficult coworker’s failure, we instead focused our energies on helping them succeed?

Power of Forgiveness

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness and the power it can have in the workplace.  In my personal life, I like to cultivate and forge relationships with people who are patient and are capable of extending forgiveness.  There is a freedom that comes with establishing these types of relationships.  Generally, you are free to make mistakes without lasting harm.  Of course, it also requires that you see your mistakes and the nature of them and apologize or ask for forgiveness.

In the workplace, cultivating a place where there is forgiveness helps create a space where people are encouraged to try things, to think outside the box, to stretch themselves to their very limits, to be risky without it bringing harsh consequences down on them.

It also creates a place where people’s individual quirks are not used against them, where new employees are not expected to be perfect, where staff are allowed to make mistakes knowing that they will learn from those mistakes and that they will not be punished for taking risks.

Punishment and the holding of grudges is poison.

I’ve worked in places where grudges were being held for things that happened 10 and 20 years ago!!!  Clearly, this is not productive.  This is what can happen when we start looking outside of ourselves instead of just focusing on our own work and our own impact on the workplace.

The next time someone does something that pisses you off, let them have a free pass.  Forgive them, let it go and move on.  See how it feels.  Does it really matter that your manager made a mistake with the schedule?  Does it matter that an irate customer is passed to you because of something someone else did?  No, ultimately, it really doesn’t matter.  Schedules get ironed out.  We all make mistakes with customers or maybe even it’s an opportunity to educate a coworker about a policy or share with them a different way of handling a problem.

In the big picture, being mad at these people, wouldn’t help you serve customers, wouldn’t help you maintain a healthy, enthusiastic morale, would negatively impact your happiness and would generally distract you from your work.

Forgiveness is a wonderful gift to share with your coworkers.  Try it once, see how it feels.

Looking for tips on Kindess in all the oddest places

photo: Toban Black

photo: Toban Black

I read Lifehacker pretty much on a daily basis.  There is usually something in there I can use for work, some great bit of advice I’ll throw into a web 2.0 class or a shortcut I incorporate into my own workflow.

Today they linked to a free e-book from The Simple Dollar called Everything You Need to Know About Personal Finance On Just One Page.

Why am I telling you about a personal finance e-book?  The author, Trent Hamm, claims all you need to know is that you have to spend less than you earn and then he presents 5 ideas to achieve this goal.  The ideas are fairly simple; but, what struck me as particularly awesome was that in Idea #2 which is titled: Earn More, he doesn’t just include ways to get raises and create additional income streams.  He starts by talking about what you can do in your current workplace.  Here are some of his points:

  1. minimize negative comments
  2. don’t backstab anyone
  3. if you have down time, find something to do (I’d add that this is the perfect time to help a colleague if they need it.)
  4. build positive relationships with everyone in the workplace
  5. ignore poisonous people
  6. own up to your mistakes
  7. don’t burn bridges
  8. keep in touch

This is excellent advice not only to keep your career on track and create avenues for raises and promotion; but, because it helps the organization or company do well, helps create good morale which improves the working atmosphere, and it feels good to be kind and engaged as a positive energy in your work community.

I had never read The Simple Dollar blog before today but will be adding it to my Bloglines account.  It seems to be a simple, gentle approach to taming our relationship with money.