A friend of mine told me a story of a time when his wife was out of town, and he had to take care of their three small children by himself. Being a psychologist, he was usually pretty good with them and understood their needs. On this particular morning, however, their little girl was pushing him past the limit.
He was trying to get them off to school, and she was lollygagging. He nagged her a few times, but she did not pick up her pace. Slowly, he began to get angry. He could hear her in her room, still playing and not getting ready at all. Her defiance was really irritating him.
He was on his way in there to let her have it when he stopped in his tracks. “If this were one of my clients, what would I do?” he asked himself. “I would find out what is causing this behavior.”
He thought about it for a moment, and then he had it. She usually had this time in the morning to spend with her mother. He walked into his daughter's room, stooped down, and with his hands on her shoulders, looked her right in the eye.
She suspected a scolding. But he said, "You miss your mommy, don't you?"
Instantly she fell into his arms and began sobbing. She could not even talk, so he did. "Yes, honey, I know," he said. "I miss her, too. It's hard having her away."
After crying in his arms for a moment, she suddenly jumped back. "Daddy! It's late!" she exclaimed. "We have to get to school!"
His empathy had taken her to a higher level. Had he followed his first impulse and come down on his daughter, her behavior would have taken him to her level of immaturity. He did not allow that to cause him to regress and act in an immature way. Instead, his love and softness melted her to a better place.
A favorite proverb of mine says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." This wise father knew that principle, and it worked for him. But to make it work, he had to get past himself and his natural instinct to dish out what he was being given, even though his daughter "deserved" it.
Not giving others what they deserve is a big part of not playing fair. To give them better than they deserve is grace. The word means "unmerited favor." Sometimes, it means that we give someone loving limits and consequences if other things have not worked. But often, limits are not needed; only a little softness is.
Instead of blasting a coworker for not getting something done, a manager goes in, closes the door, and asks, “Is everything ok? It looks like you might be getting a little overwhelmed or behind...”
Instead of riding a teenager for her non-performance, a dad asks how things are going, if it all seems too hard, or makes some other attempt to understand the teen before addressing the problem.
When a husband gets short-tempered or barks at his wife, instead of barking back, a wife walks over and gives him a hug. “Little overwhelmed today, huh?” Barking is answered with kindness.
When those on the other side of a business deal do not do their job, the first move is to ask how it's going, or if there is anything we can do to help from our side. “Seems like you guys might be getting overtaxed over there...” Often this kind of understanding is returned with gratitude and extra service.
When you take the time to show empathy and offer grace, it serves as a reminder that those you interact with are human. It means they're imperfect, yet they're capable of improvement. No one goes through life with the desire to do worse, so when you take a moment to put yourself in their situation, remember to extend the same kindness you would want to be met with. When you take the high road, it will leave a positive impression, and they'll be encouraged to do the same.