The Art of Being Direct and Kind

Mar 7, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

SOUTHSIDE BARBERSHOP from "A Tennessee Portrait", p. 139

We need to learn the art of being both direct and kind, especially when speaking with people we don’t agree with or like.

It’s rare to find someone in our current culture who speaks directly and kindly at the same time. So rare that I really notice it when I hear someone doing it well.

I heard something about the Zulu a while ago that has me thinking this might signal cultural difference. The Zulu greeting “sawubona” translates as, “We see you.” The normal response is, “Yabo, sawubona” (“Yes, we see you too.”)

Say “sawubona” to someone and you are declaring that you see the other through your eyes and the eyes of your ancestors. You are, literally, acknowledging and agreeing to be fully present with them and all the ancestors they represent. This agreement obligates you to affirm and investigate the potential that is present in each moment, to explore together how you can participate in each other’s life.

Who are you? Who are we together?

When a conversation begins with “sawubona”, these questions linger in the background, creating a beautiful context for authenticity and kindness.

In our current culture, conversations begin differently. We generally tend to think of ourselves as individuals. And so I introduce myself to you (“Hi, I’m Lori.”) and you introduce yourself to me (“Hi, I’m Mike.”). If you agree with me and I agree with you, we’ll be predisposed to keep talking. That predisposition is pretty wired in.

Yet one of the things that makes us unique in the animal world is choice. We do not have to let sameness be the primary driver of collective action. Even though my first instinct about you might be that we have nothing in common and that you’re not someone I really want to get to know, I can, like a Zulu person, deliberately choose to see you as a human being. I can choose to take in the fullness of who you are, to learn what you value and think is important.

What’s up with you? What’s gone on in your life?

I can choose to put aside any preconceived judgments based on how you show up for me. I can intend to get to know the real you. I can choose to listen generously, with curiosity, in a way that makes you feel you are being heard.

I can witness you.

And in doing so, I can start to discover not only who you are, but also who I am in relationship with you.

Then, when I do speak, no matter whether I agree with you or not, it will be much easier to speak plainly and thoughtfully.


Photo credit: Jerry Park, “Southside Barber Shop”, Slow Roads America.

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