Teri Orr: A strategy for kindness — catch them doing good
As a form of parenting and employee management … it is easy to find the mistake — dish the criticism. Throw up your hands or throw the razor knife across the room.
My first editor at this paper had anger management issues. At least that is the language we would use now. He loved to toss the razor knife across the room and watch it stick in the layout board — right next to the person laying out the paper — which was often me. I was both terrified of him and mesmerized by him. Three decades later — after he had moved out of state — he would find me in the lobby of the Eccles Center and apologize for his years as an alcoholic who was also trying to come out as a gay man in a century-old Mormon family. He was a colorful character who helped shaped my love of Park City and made me want to learn — to do better — show up. We went to all the football games and all the city council meetings. We spent Friday afternoons — in good weather on the deck of The Club — in bad weather not “behind the pine” as bartenders call it but — in front — at the Alamo. It was just a beer bar — if you wanted something stronger you had to bring it in or wink at the bartender as they poured from under the counter. He was really a kind human who often praised my photography or my investigative story but he couldn’t control his anger then — for reasons I knew nothing about. I ended up leaving that job I loved after two years to start my own public relations company.
I had come to Park City in the late ’70s and I brought with me the experience of working with Claudia Jones — the founder of a preschool — a powerful social group that met in the basement of the Lutheran Church in Tahoe City. It was my first foray into nonprofit work. I ended up a year later as chair of the group — I was 25. On the Welcome Night each fall, Claudia brought a photo of her child — a young college-age woman. She talked about all her mistakes in parenting and how her beautiful, smart daughter had survived — despite all that. She shared she had developed later a philosophy of child-rearing that boiled down to “catch them doing good.” It was hard to be a parent and easy to criticize — don’t touch, don’t sass back, don’t run into the street, don’t talk to strangers, don’t put your feet there — don’t don’t don’t. And some of those don’ts were needed — to keep children safe. Some were just about having/developing good manners. But what Claudia emphasized was the nurturing property of praising children — not for dumb stuff — like good for you — you flushed — to a 10-year-old. But more like — I saw you helping your sister tie her shoe — that was sweet. I overheard you tell a bully to stop teasing that boy down the street … that was important. … I am aware you helped a new student find their way around school yesterday … good for you — I bet they felt less scared.
They don’t get a new bike for doing any of these things or even new sneakers — they receive your praise — a hug — a high-five or — a tickle. This isn’t the “every kid gets a trophy” syndrome — not at all. It only works long-term if kids know the small kindness is often noticed — it becomes reward enough.
In the workplace it is the same … the little stuff — thanks for helping me get the report out in time — I know it was a ton of extra work. I am so impressed with how you handled that client/donor/student. Your thoughtfulness really made a difference in someone’s day. It isn’t always about the thing — it is about noticing the thing.
And then the most difficult chapter comes. Chapter Two in the right thing to do category. I am sorry … I didn’t have all the information and the conclusion I reached was ill informed. I said something I regret — can I talk to you about that? I thought I understood the situation and I clearly didn’t and I am overreacting. It all sounds so simple until you have to spit those words out when you’d rather hide under the covers — I get it. But like with so many muscles we forget to use — it all becomes easier the more we do it.
In journalism, we also know it as the … it’s hell when the truth gets in the way of a good story. Like — the police officer who rode his horse into the bar on Main Street to break up a fight but then it turns out that never happened — there was no horse and the bar fight was just a verbal altercation over a bill. There is no story where you thought you had an award-winning one.
The age of gotcha journalism has produced gotcha life. The splitting infractions of exactitudes — I said use blue/green in that print job — not sea foam — aquamarine! I needed two copies of the report and you made three! Why did you not complete the task — I hinted — might be due today? Those attacks — however minor — start to take a toll on self-esteem and the ability to want to do your best work. The erosion of confidence in self leads to erosion in the workplace.
And yet it is so easy to fix. This week try this little exercise — for each criticism you give out — find five times to catch that same person “doing good.” I know that sounds excessive but it can take that level of praise to wipe out the one harsh judgment, word, action. And when you start finding the good in your child, partner, co-worker — the shift can be nothing short of miraculous. Your attitude can become contagious — catch them doing good — costs nothing and I can assure you, once folks feel how good that is — they want to be included in both the giving and receiving of simple kindnesses. It can make any day instantly better — like a Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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