Courage and Kindness: Is There a Connection?
Interview with Sandra Ford Walston, September 16, 2015 Part 1
Donna, YOLK: As I’ve been exploring kindness this year, I’ve been struck many times by the fact that it often takes courage to be kind. Extending kindness to others—and even to ourselves—risks judgment, rejection, or going against prevailing winds. Sometimes it means we make ourselves vulnerable or chance looking foolish. Courage is required if we are to overcome all of those risks. As Wayne Muller said, “A kind life…is fundamentally a life of courage.”
I know of no one more qualified to talk about courage than my friend and colleague Sandra Ford Walston is a speaker and internationally known as The Courage Expert. She’s the author of several books, including Courage: The Heart and Spirit of Every Woman/Reclaiming the Forgotten Virtue, The Courage Difference at Work: A Unique Success Guide for Women, and Face It! 12 Courageous Actions that Bring Success at Work and Beyond. Sandra is a human potential consultant, speaker, trainer, and courage coach. She has graciously agreed to be interviewed and to share her wisdom about courage with A Year of Living Kindly.
YOLK: Sandra, the kind of courage you write and speak about isn’t the daring of jumping out of a plane, or running into a burning building, or even the bravery of facing a life-threatening illness. How would you describe the courage that you’ve researched, written and spoken about for so many years?
Sandra Ford Walston: Traditionally, courage is viewed as withstanding danger or facing fear under perilous circumstances. Such acts as running into a burning building, pushing a pedestrian out of the way of a speeding car, tackling a robber in flight, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his squad are readily accepted instances of courage. But split-second heroism and everyday courage are not one and the same. What I am suggesting is that everyday people like you and me display courage constantly and subtly. Courage is much more complex than spontaneous reactions to traumatic events. We “everyday people” can embrace our courage and pass it on to others. We do it by inviting the original definition of courage into our lives.
YOLK: What is that original definition?
SFW: Courage originates from the Old French corage, meaning “heart and spirit.” This takes us beyond the narrow definition of bravery in the face of danger to encompass mental or moral strength. When I apply this original definition to my life, I feel more empowered to be discerning and better able to respond to my inherent energy of courage. The word “virtue” in Latin is virs, meaning “energy.” Some people who have trouble claiming their courage might find it easier if they think of courage as energy—as their life energy.
Paradoxically, hiding my courage drains my energy. By paying attention, I know when my reservoir of courage is low or brimming over. My reservoir is full when I turn down a piece of business because it doesn’t feel like the right fit. I also know when I swallow my voice or sell my soul that my courage is low. When I constantly ask, “Am I being true to who I am?” I know I am applying the original definition to my life. I have the dignity to dare.
YOLK: What are some other examples of “everyday courage”?
SFW: Sometimes small acts require great courage. We see it in the workplace when one has the courage to ask for the long overdue raise, or take the risk to leave a job without another in place, or confront a workplace bully. Elsewhere in our lives, one may demonstrate courage when summoning the strength to get a divorce or end a relationship, or the conviction to get married or enter a relationship. For women, especially, learning to ask for what you want is often an act of courage.
YOLK: You write a lot about courage related to women and girls. How is courage different for males and females?
SFW: While I haven’t conducted research on courage gender differences, we know that gender colors behavior, perception and perspectives. I have researched and discovered that throughout history, women have generally acted from their hearts, thus male notions of courage as heroic actions tended to diminish recognition of feminine courage. Perhaps women have been unconscious to the truth that they have always been courageous. Discovering courage awakens an ancient feminine energy that every woman should utilize.
When women exhibit courage in the workplace, such as taking a stand, speaking up, or accepting a new role or a professional risk, they tap into that valuable personal reserve called courage. Courageous women step up to the next level. And they design their own professional path rather than letting outside influences dictate who they are or what they should be.
I encourage women to ask themselves, “Are you a profile in courage at work?” Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves in that way. Going back to that original definition of the word, courage is the awareness of the heart. The heart has an unlimited capacity to hold all that we are to be.
YOLK: I like that. It sounds like mindfulness is an essential element of courage, just as I believe it is of kindness. We need to continually be mindful and pay attention to our lives. It’s so easy to miss the opportunities to be courageous, as well as to recognize when we have acted courageously. I see it with kindness, too: it’s easy to miss opportunities to extend kindness if we walk around in a state of obliviousness.
SFW: Yes! We claim our courage when we come to understand and practice the art of being present. Present to our actions, present to our experience, and present to our emotions. As a result of learning to live wholly in the moment and having the courage to stop and reflect, we are able to process choices clearly and quickly, take action more readily, and stay centered in our own truth.
YOLK: I loved a line I read in a recent blog post of yours: “Courageous women recognize defining moments as they happen.” That certainly reinforces the need for mindfulness, but there’s more to it. What did you mean by that statement?
SFW: How often do we see a red flag but do nothing to change the situation it is warning us about? Sometimes we see 50 red flags before we finally act. Staying centered in our courage allows us to see these defining moments and respond to the first warning sign, rather than deny it or deceive ourselves. Another instance of recognizing and seizing a defining moment is a woman I spoke to just a few days ago. She told me that she had interviewed for a job and for the first time ever in such a situation she chose to affirm her strength and her self-esteem and she asked for everything she wanted from the potential employer. Not only did she get the job, she got everything she asked for. Women don’t do that often enough; we allow misplaced fears to hold us back. Fear is often the chatter of learned responses and it keeps us from speaking up or recognizing that something isn’t right. As we are more aware of that, we conquer it.
YOLK: You describe 12 behaviors of courage. Do you think that any of them are particularly essential for leading a kind life?
SFW: Through my research, I’ve identified twelve behaviors of courage, which are shown on the Source Wheel. People I coach and speak with often exhibit many of these behaviors and see a need to strengthen others. In different situations, we call on different energies of our courage for the strength to stand up for ourselves and remain true to our self. Any of these energies may be summoned to express kindness.
YOLK: It’s clear from your work that it takes courage to live with intentionality every day, or to say or do something that may be counter to prevailing attitudes or behaviors. It takes courage to live authentically and be willing to put yourself out there. How can one claim their courage or perhaps reinforce it?
SFW: I don’t think you can ever have too much courage—and I don’t mean being foolhardy. I know when my reservoir is low. Most people will change when the pain of staying in the old pattern is greater than the pain of change. But, why go through so much suffering? There is choice: you can choose to build and draw from a reservoir of courage. This supports you to stand up for the self you know to be you. The choice is yours and it starts with whether you will choose to give yourself permission to claim your individual courage, and to be conscious about your spirit’s dignity and true essence. This is not found in Business 101! You know when you’ve stayed on a job far too long because it’s bleeding your heart, not feeding your spirit. When you choose to design new choices you limit the residual of regret. The more you exercise your courage, the more courage you will have.
YOLK: Could you talk a bit about vulnerability? I’ve seen that true kindness often requires us to reveal our most vulnerable self. You’ve expressed a similar connection between vulnerability and courage.
SFW: Self-awareness offers us opportunities for an honest assessment of our vulnerabilities. We discover that vulnerability comes in many forms, such as acknowledging our unhappiness, learning to move on through calamitous events, and learning not to deny or manipulate failures or mistakes. The more intense the circumstances, the more risky it seems to admit our vulnerabilities—especially in the context of work—but trying to manipulate these circumstances serves only the ego’s need to feel in control and generally backfires. Few people have the courage to reveal vulnerability, acknowledge it and overcome it.
Revealing vulnerability demonstrates maturity in the development of your true self and demonstrates great courage. It takes enormous courage to forego manipulation.
YOLK: What are some of the ways we can move through our vulnerability and claim our courage?
SFW: With self-awareness, we begin to notice our personal forms of manipulation—from bullying, to indifference, to passive aggressive behaviors. Facing a decisive moment provides an opportunity to reveal vulnerability. Do you confess your shortcomings and missteps? For example, if you lack knowledge about a topic, do you respond in a deceptive manner that keeps your ego intact? The honest response would be to reveal your vulnerability by admitting that you do not know the answer. Confessing is good for the spirit when done in a timely manner and with positive intent. The process helps us face the truth. We take responsibility for our lives and our actions.
Revealing vulnerability allows our best lights to shine. Where our ego mentality insists that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and must be hidden, the deeper truth is that revealing our vulnerability represents integrity and conveys our true identity. The alternative—hiding our mistakes and weaknesses and pretending to be what we are not—can only be accomplished through manipulation, which undermines our integrity, breeds distrust and stifles our true “heart and spirit” identity. As poet e.e. cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”
In summary, vulnerability supports self-realization, underscoring a human being’s essence—the true Self. Far from being a bad thing, vulnerability leads us to our most authentic self.
YOLK: I know you’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years in your research about courage. Has kindness emerged for you as a courage issue?
SFW: Indirectly…. I often use a phrase that reveals higher integral level of courage consciousness: “where courage meets grace.” I would say that this intersection of courage and grace requires an inbred kindness. I also detect kindness in courage advocacy, such as speaking up on someone’s behalf or, or saying kind words about someone to set the tone for receptivity. Kindness shows up when you’re “a word en-courager.” A word en-courager boosts people rather than busts people. If you think of a list of virtues such as compassion, grace, tolerance or humility, I feel they all fall under courage, since it means “heart and spirit” or coming from your true Self. Hence, if I am centered in my courage I will naturally display kindness.
YOLK: You’ve also written about the epidemic of incivility and discourtesy in modern society. About how the manners that were instilled in so many of us—by our parents and our teachers—seem to be disappearing. Why do you think that is, and do you see any role for courage in bringing back civility?
SFW: Courage and civility are essential to foster good citizenship. It often seems that common courtesy and simple manners have gone the way of one-speed bicycles and black-and-white TVs. Regaining those niceties could do a lot toward redefining the workplace environment as a place of willing and generous productivity. Those of us who were raised with manners have gotten lazy. In our laziness, we’ve raised a second generation of individuals who are simply and often sincerely ignorant of such values as respect for others, kindness, generosity, and common decency, such as holding the door open for the person following you. These are not dated, “old fogey” concepts. They take virtually no additional time or energy, and their returns are great.
Broadening this issue, we find ourselves at the heart of moral courage which I define as an attitude of willingness to choose differently in spite of personal hardship or prevailing attitudes. It requires a higher level of integrity than required for the easy alternative. Moral courage is like a compass. If we stay on-course, we will get to our desired destination. But if we are even one degree off-course, we will eventually find ourselves far from our intended destination.
YOLK: What would you say to someone who would like to increase their capacity for courage, or claim the courage that often gets stuck inside? Or to a parent who wants to help their child grow up confident in their courage?
SFW: Some of the things we’ve talked about already, such as being mindful and courage-centered, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Make use of the Source Wheel; place it somewhere prominent where you can see it and be reminded of the energies and actions of courage.
I also encourage people to support their courage with some form of meditation. Meditation is the protective shelter from the ego’s storms. It helps us to become more centered and more able to recognize when and how to claim our courage.
To a parent I’d say start using the word courage with your kids. Talk about what courage means and let them talk about and claim their courage. We need to help our kids grow up comfortable in their courage and able to see it in others. My nine-year-old niece and I talk about courage. She was just telling me how it takes courage to speak up and to refuse to engage in saying unkind things about other girls. She’s going to be a courageous woman.
YOLK: Any last words for us?
SFW: In my coaching I often ask my clients two questions. I’ll pose them here:
- Are you willing to give yourself permission to claim your courage? This is something that only you can do for yourself.
- What action would you do right now if you had unlimited courage?
- What is an early defining moment story that shaped your life and the work you do today (or wish to do in the future)?
YOLK: Those are great questions, and ones we can ask ourselves over and over. Sandra Ford Walston, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your courage expertise with us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
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