Episode 407: Communicating for a Movement with Houston Kraft, author of Deep Kindness

Mp 407

Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, author, curriculum designer, and kindness advocate whose book, Deep Kindness: A Revolutionary Guide for the Way We Think, Talk, and Act in Kindness, has inspired millions to examine the difference between nice and kind and why specifically deep kindness is not only a revolutionary act, but a necessary one.

Kraft is also the co-founder of Character Strong, which develops training programs and curricula for effective, sustainable school culture change. To date, his work has reached more than 1 million students and their teachers.

There is something special at the intersection of Houston Kraft’s initiatives, something we’ve forgotten along our journey toward building bigger, better, faster organizations and teams. To us, it appears that Houston has given us a profound reminder that social-emotional learning benefits the whole person; at Character Strong, it’s for the school kids, and with Deep Kindness, we realize it’s for us big kids, too.

Thanks to Houston and his team for creating the time for this conversation. We’re honored to offer it to our Mission Forward community.

Episode Transcript

Houston Kraft:
People more actively seek Advil than they do vitamins. When we talk about kindness, it’s a bit of a vitamin concept to people. I think people oftentimes treated as a nice-to-have. Part of the argument in the book is that it’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. I would argue it’s an essential ingredient to not only a fulfilled life, but to healing a world that I think is presently actively divided, challenged, overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, hurting. All of the things that we don’t want for our world, for our kids, for ourselves.

Carrie Fox:
That’s the voice of Houston Kraft, professional speaker, author, curriculum designer, and kindness advocate whose book Deep Kindness has inspired millions to examine the difference between nice and kind, and why deep kindness is not only a revolutionary act, but a necessary one.
Hi, folks. And welcome to this episode of Mission Forward, where each week we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting conversation on the power of communications as a tool for social change. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and a certified B corporation.
I’m so glad to have Houston Kraft with us today. In addition to his work as the author of Deep Kindness, which we’re going to get into today, he’s also the co-founder of Character Strong, which develops trainings and curriculums that create more compassionate cultures in schools and communities. And to date, his work has reached more than one million students and their teachers, which is incredible.
Houston, before we get into our conversation, you and I have a few things in common. We both published our first books in 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic. Both of them were about the practice of kindness. Yours was more for parents and teachers, whereas mine was more for younger kids, Adventures in Kindness. But both designed to build kindness activists, and that’s a little bit of what we’re going to talk about today. It was actually a chance encounter during those book launch tours that gave us chance to cross paths. You may not even remember this, but you and I and my daughter Sophia both appeared on the Hallmark Channel the same week, and Susan Sullivan thought to make mention of you to me. And as soon as I learned about your work, I thought, “Gosh, I want to learn more about him.” What you were doing just seemed so incredible to me. So welcome to the show, Houston. Thanks for taking so much time and thought in what you’ve been building and sharing some of it with us today.

Houston Kraft:
Thanks, Carrie. Well, those are fun commonalities we have. I wonder what else we have in common.

Carrie Fox:
I know.

Houston Kraft:
Are you a Gemini?

Carrie Fox:
I know. I’m a Scorpio.

Houston Kraft:
Okay. All right. Fair enough.

Carrie Fox:
But we’ll find other things as we’re talking. Let’s start at the top. Tell me more about how your journey brought you to write Deep Kindness and to launch Character Strong.

Houston Kraft:
I love that you teed today up with perspective shifting. I’ve become fairly convinced that words play a huge role in the way that we understand the world around us. Words in and of themselves are perspectives. And a big part of my journey, Carrie, started in high school when I went to a summer camp and I listened to a guy on stage named John Norland. It was a camp out on the woods of Washington. He defined a word that changed a big part of how I approached my life. The word is leadership. He said that there’s thousands of definitions of that word all over the world. And when you think about it, the way that you define that word in your brain, your perspective on that word will probably play a big role in how you act with it in the world. That’s true with a lot of words. How we think about a thing shapes the way we act with a thing.
John said there’s thousands of definitions, and people interested in this sort of thing have done the work of putting all those definitions in one place and saying, “What do they have in common?” And what they discovered was that there was one word or idea used most commonly across all these definitions, and the word was influence. John Maxwell, a great writer in leadership, he says this. “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” It’s interesting. It’s not a position. It’s not a title. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s simply the idea of influence. And the argument made to me at camp was we are all influencing every day, whether we like it or not. Even when we choose not to do things, sometimes our inaction is just as influential as our chosen actions. Yeah, it’s interesting.
And then I remember sitting there in the audience being like, “Okay. Well, how does that relate to my life?” It takes it a step further. A great book that … An author named James Hunter wrote a book called The Servant. He talks about this idea of servant leadership. He says, “It’s not a question of whether or not you’re leading. It’s a question of whether or not you’re effective, and whether or not you’re using your influence for good or for bad.” So then the question in my brain was like, “How do I become a more effective leader to influence in, ideally, positive ways in the world?”
So my senior year of high school, I went back to my school and I tried to answer that question. What would it look like to influence my school in a positive, meaningful way? So I started a club called Random Acts of Kindness, Etc. We needed an E on there because we wanted a big wooden garden rake to be our mascot. The premise was once a week we would get together and we would practice kindness, and that laid the foundation for, truly, I mean, to where I’m at now. Every week we would get together and talk about kindness, put it into action.
I went to college. I started another club at that college around the practice of kindness. And I realized just how important that was to build community around this thing that I think collectively we understand to be important, but we don’t always have systems to mobilize it consistently in our life. And if I wanted to create kindness, if I wanted to influence the world to be more kind, then I realized I just needed consistently systems, spaces, people to come around me to motivate me, to give me ideas, to inspire me, to hold me accountable, and to put into action over time this thing that I wanted to become. And that led me to speaking in schools and writing curriculum and ultimately writing the book, so it started with a definition.

Carrie Fox:
How cool that you touch on influence, too. Because it goes both ways, right? As much as we can influence, we can also be influenced, right? Are we on the receiving or the giving end of that? And what you have introduced in this concept of deep kindness I think has been such an important concept and so perfectly timed over the course of these last few years. That there is, as you say, a really big difference between being nice and being kind. And that when you ask folks, “Are you kind?” folks are going to say, “Yeah. Generally. Yeah, I’m kind.” But they might actually be thinking that they’re nice, or talking about the fact that they’re nice. Talk to us more about this difference between nice and kind, and then we’ll get more into what deep kindness really means.

Houston Kraft:
Yeah. Well, like a lot of things that I’ve learned that were important to me, I spent, Carrie, seven years consistently speaking in primarily high schools and middle schools. I had a chance to speak at about 600 schools over the course of seven years. The gift of that job is you just get to hear a lot of young people’s stories and a lot of young people’s wisdom.
I was at a school outside of San Antonio. I did an assembly. And after the assembly was over, a kid came down to talk. It was like a senior boy, and he kind of had this air about him that I thought he was going to make fun. He felt like he was going to be cynical about the message. And he walks up to me, and his first statement made me feel like I was right in my prediction.
He was like, “Hey, man. I just wanted to let you know that while you were talking today, I realized I’m a really nice person.” I’m like, “Cool, man. I guess that was the point.” And he looks at me kind of funny. He goes, “No, I don’t think you understand. I realize that I’m nice, but I don’t think I’m kind.” I’m like, “You got to help me unpack that. What’s the difference to you?” And he goes, “I don’t know. The way you talked about it today, I think nice is just like a reaction. If someone’s nice to me, I’ll be nice back to them. If I like you, I’ll be nice to you, right? If I see you drop your things, maybe I’ll go and help, especially if I think I’m going to get something in return, like a thank you. Or if I think you’re cute, your number. Whatever the thing is, it’s a transaction.”
And he goes, “Kindness, the way you talked about it today, kindness isn’t reactive. It’s proactive. It means you’re choosing it. You’re choosing it even when you don’t feel like it, even if you don’t get along with that person. Even if someone hasn’t dropped their things, how do you still make them feel helped?” And then you can see this moment of clarity. The gift of the work is when you get to witness those moments. The kid starts to like get tears in his eyes. He goes, “Why do we always wait for bad stuff to happen in the world until we practice making people feel good?” And he goes, “I realized while you were talking today that kindness requires a lot of work, and I think I have a lot of work to do.” I was like, “That’s good, man. You’re spot on.”
To go back to this premise of definitions to words, I think that our world has oversimplified kindness, and in doing so, in many ways unintentionally devalued it. We make it seem like it’s something you just have to be kind or buy the coffee for the person in line behind you. And when we simplify it down to those random acts, you realize that we lose the rigor. We lose the sacrifice. We lose the difficulty, the discomfort, the work that’s required in actually creating a more kind world, in actually practicing kindness in moments when you don’t feel like it, when it’s uncomfortable. This kid said it so beautifully. It’s not about being nice. It’s about being kind.

Carrie Fox:
That is the intersecting point of the work that Sophia and I started through Adventurous in Kindness too, because it was the same type of experience that we had. She was at the time in third grade. She and I keep a journal. We write notes to each other each night, and put them under our pillows and share. She was asking me why essentially white people in power can be so mean, how people in power can be so mean. I’m thinking to myself, “That’s a big question for a little kid.” But we decided that if we didn’t like the way that that felt, we could do something about it, right? And it, wasn’t the idea of just saying thank you and opening doors and making your bed in the morning. Those things are important. Those things are almost like … That should be a natural part of your daily activity. But the idea of practicing kindness and building the muscle is something you have to do every day, and you have to get out of your comfort zone to do it.
So our idea of Adventures in Kindness was to build 52 adventures, one for every single week of the year that she and I could go on to practice kindness. And essentially, we didn’t have the word for it, but we were practicing deep kindness, right? It was how we better understand the world around us in order to shape and influence the world around us from a kid’s perspective.
So it’s why on so many levels I just really love what you’ve built, and I love how much it’s resonated. I had mentioned to you I opened up a magazine recently, and there you were. I mean, your message is the kind of message that should be out there right now, and so I’m glad it’s taking off.
I’m curious, though. And again, we’re here on a communications podcast. How much did you expect it to take off? Or how much of this has surprised you along the way on the response that you’ve gotten to your work?

Houston Kraft:
I think about a few things that I have recognized as true over the past many years doing this work. One of them was told to me by my mentor. I don’t think it’s attributed to anyone, but it’s a bit of an adage. It’s that people more actively seek Advil than they do vitamins. When we talk about kindness, it’s a bit of a vitamin concept to people. I think people oftentimes treat it as a nice-to-have. Part of the argument in the book is that it’s not a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have. I would argue as it’s an essential ingredient to not only a fulfilled life, but to healing a world that I think is presently actively divided, challenged, overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, hurting. All of the things that we don’t want for our world, for our kids, for ourselves. I think the timeliness of it was part one, that we were in a space where kindness was a pain reliever more than just a supplement.
The other thing that I think is true is Samuel Johnson quote. People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed. Particularly when we’re feeling stressed and exhausted or overwhelmed or busy or anxious, kindness falls to the background because we have so much else going on. So I think we need things that elevate it into our busy world or else we just get consumed by the relentlessness of productivity, by the relentlessness of our to-do list, by just the deluge of data every day, just the news, the information that’s inbound and everything that we have going on.
One of my friends, Dr. Michele Borba, she’s been researching empathy for 30 years. She says the three biggest barriers to empathy, connection, kindness: fear, anxiety, and narcissism. All three of which statistically have gone up, have increased over the past decade. So when fear is increasing, when anxiety is increasing, when narcissism is increasing, then the reminders of kindness become that much more essential. We need a lot more inputs and a lot more accountability.
Then the last piece is going to be story. I think that getting invited to practice kindness when you’re already really busy and overwhelmed can sometimes feel like a lot for people. I think we need and we learn best through stories. So how can we wrap this vitamin or this Advil, if you will, how can we wrap it in a story that makes it digestible, approachable, relatable in order to transform through it?

Carrie Fox:
So speaking of that, I’m going to ask you to tell me a story. Because, you were on one of my favorite podcasts, the Stuff You Should Know podcast a while back. I think this was right after your book came out. And you told a story about Sandy Hook and teddy bears, if you remember telling that story.

Houston Kraft:
I spend a lot of time speaking, Carrie. Speaking is this synchronous experience, right? You’re in the space with people and you get a chance, typically with a limited amount of time to share certain pieces, and it’s mostly story based. And in writing a book, you get a chance to take those stories and then attach it to other anecdotes, to other pieces of data and points that hopefully create a more cohesive narrative.
When I discovered this anecdote from Sandy Hook, it was one of those moments where you just lean back from the computer and you’re like, “Yeah, this is exactly what I’m trying to articulate as seen as evidenced by this painful moment.” And what I read when I was writing a chapter about empathy and its relationship to kindness was that after Sandy Hook, after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, people from all over the world, right? We waited till this … Here’s this moment of tragedy, which is when we respond. It’s the reactive moment. And people from all over the world were like, “This is terrible.” And so they sent Newtown, they sent Sandy Hook teddy bears, stuffed animals. Kids had lost their lives, and this is what the people thought to do.
On the far side of that, what I learned in reading about it was Newtown had to rent a 20,000 square foot warehouse just to house all of these inbound gifts. So now you have a community struggling with this emotional trauma, who has to deal with this sort of logistical challenge. And the most profound moment was reading about the candlelit vigil, which one of the organizers who helped planned it in an interview, he said, “You know, there were more stuffed animals present than there were people.” And he goes, “A teddy bear is great, but a teddy bear doesn’t pay for counseling, and a teddy bear doesn’t pay for a funeral.”
If I don’t take the time to understand what someone needs and I’m giving you kindness detached from that listening, from that perspective taking, from that empathy, my uncomfortable argument is that that action is going to benefit me the giver more than it does the receiver on the far side. Meaning, kindness without empathy is more about me than it is about you.

Carrie Fox:
You’re right. I mean, that is a powerful story. And as I listened to it, I was listening to it on a run. I stopped. I had to just stop, because I had to process and take it in as you were telling it to me. It really does reinforce the difference between performing a kind act and truly, because of the care you wish to give and how you have listened and learned what is needed versus what makes you or I feel good.

Houston Kraft:
Absolutely.

Carrie Fox:
What have you learned? It’s a year later here. You’ve had the book out for a year. You have been speaking, listening, learning, building curriculum. We are still in a really interesting, difficult moment in time. We are not fully out of COVID yet. We’re in a world that’s in a lot of ways in a lot of hurt. But at the same time, there’s a lot of possibility and a lot of opportunity and a lot of deep kindness being active and practiced.

Houston Kraft:
One of the things I come back to consistently when I feel overwhelmed, which is often in the face of all the things that we’re navigating, is the power of habit, the power of ritual, a great book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. And in the book, there was this statistic that I thought was shocking. 45% of our day is routine, on average. That’s the statistic that is notable and uncomfortable. Because if 45% of my day is habit, it means that 45% of my week is, which means 45% of my month is, which means nearly half of my life on autopilot. And it makes sense, right? Our brains crave routine because they save us energy. Anytime we have to make a conscious choice, it costs us something. And I always use Steve Jobs in my brain. He wore the same turtleneck every day because it was one less choice he had to make, because he was making a lot of other big, complicated choices.
What happened during COVID is that so many of our routines got blown apart, right? Which is both challenging, because it’s exhausting. We’re making more choices than we normally had to, so we’re tired. We’re making a lot more conscious decisions. It’s also the gift of opportunities to rethink how we build those routines and habits in our life. So I like to do the exercise of like, if 45% of my day is habit, what percent have I designed to be kind? It’s like a self-challenging question for me, because the argument for myself is it is the small things we do consistently that will have a much greater impact on our life than the one-off things we do when it’s convenient or comfortable or we put a bunch of time and energy into the one big event. It would be like meditating for six hours as opposed to like giving yourself the gift of slow and consistent over time.
So I like to think about it. To make it manageable in a world that can sometimes feel overwhelming, I’m like, “What does a 1% shift in my day look like?” Then you do the math. The average person is awake. Their waking hours is roughly 960 minutes, so each day you and I are roughly awake for 960 minutes. So I’m like, “Okay, what’s 1% of that? 9.6 minutes.” Okay, so not even 10 minutes of my day. What would it look like to dedicate 9.6 minutes daily to the practice of kindness?
To me, that’s one of the things that I’ve like been challenged by. It’s one of the things I spend a lot of time trying to teach too. It’s one of the things I try to like figure out how to live by. And then the argument when you think about the business world is always systems over goals. So how do you create systems that then actually holds you accountable to making that true?
As an example, at Character Strong everyone in our organization at the beginning of each quarter sets what we call a character goal. It’s typically around a word. My word this quarter is whole. My word last quarter was grateful. Other team members, it might be kind. It might be present. It might be humbled. And the idea is, every single day in the organization we write out the things we have to get done, and at the top of that list, we write out our word and one thing we’ll do that day to live into that word. Right?
So instead of keeping it abstract, instead of just crossing our fingers and hoping, we say in this example, “What would it be like in 9.6 minutes to practice gratitude?” We have a system where everyone writes it out so people can see it. I have to think about it. I have an accountability partner. This quarter, her name’s Ashley. So Ashley and I check in every week, “How’s it going?” Her goal this week is to close her rings on her Apple Watch. She wants to be more balanced.

Carrie Fox:
Go, Ashley. Go.

Houston Kraft:
Yeah. Go, Ashley. Go. And then we have in our team meetings every week when we get together to talk about other numbers in the organization. We just as thoughtfully and systematically measure whether or not we’re on track or off track in our character goals as we do with any other member in the organization. It’s about priority, right? How do we make these things a priority?

Carrie Fox:
It reminds me of … So I went to a Jesuit university, and we practiced cura personalis, care for the whole person. Right? But that’s really a lot of what you’re saying and what I’m hearing from you, too. Right? It’s not just about showing up and doing your work really well. It’s how are you able to show up and practice the things that make you a better, a more whole person in the process?

Houston Kraft:
Absolutely. Yeah. And with young people, it’s like a paradigm shift of how do we ask them the question, “Who do you want to be when you grow up? Who do you want to be in your work? As opposed to just, “What do you want to do?”

Carrie Fox:
All right. We’ve got a few more minutes. I have one more question that I really want to ask you because of the fact that you get to talk with so many different types of people. A lot of the work that we do is either directly related to or parallel to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So we’re not DEI consultants, but we’re often working with organizations who are along that journey somewhere and trying to figure out how to communicate the commitments that they’ve made, or sometimes even redesign their practices to be more equitable in that process.
Often what we hear from folks is, “Gosh. I’m overwhelmed. I’m worried I’m going to say the wrong thing. I’m just not going to do anything. I’m just frozen in my tracks.” And we always say, “Start where you are.” Right? The best thing to do is start right where you are. We’re going to take some actions, and we’re going to take slow. We’re going to make sure we can deliver on those actions, but start where you are.
And for you, you are working with such a diverse set of folks. One of the things that I’d love to hear from you if you’re able to come in on this one is, how do you communicate with folks across some of those known barriers? Maybe it’s across generations. Maybe it’s across different types of divides that might exist to ensure that folks are hearing what you want them to hear and then doing something, like taking action with these amazing messages that you have to share.

Houston Kraft:
It’s a great question, and I think one of the more challenging, complicated ones of our culture today. I think it’s going to be a continued thing we navigate collectively, because so much of it is rooted in empathy and perspective taking.

Carrie Fox:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Houston Kraft:
One of the principles that we teach in our curriculum is what we would describe as circles of care. And if you were to picture yourself in the center of a ripple and you have circles around you, the concept of circles of care is that empathy and perspective taking is cognitively easier when we are trying to understand people who are most like us. It kind of makes sense. Like if you grew up in the same area, if you grew up in the same religion, if you grew up in the same political spectrum, if you grew up with the similar mental needs or physical needs as someone, you have more lived experience to more easily and readily understand them.
It makes sense then that the farther out you go, if you picture those circles getting farther and farther away, the argument is that it’s not impossible. It just requires a bigger cognitive lift, right? Perspective taking is intentional imagination. It’s harder work to extend your experience into an experience that is totally unlike yours, so it requires practice. If you think about trying to do that from the closest circle to you to the farthest one away, if you were to try to jump to that farthest circle away immediately, you’re definitely going to stumble. And it’s going to be hard and confusing, and you might make some errors along the way.
So I’ll start with that statement, which is that empathy is not you either have it or you don’t. In fact, people can have really high levels of empathy for people who are most like them. The more challenging work is, how do you extend beyond the people most like you? And that requires like some skills, right? There’s curiosity. There’s asking good questions. There’s a willingness to be humbled. There’s vulnerability there. There’s all kinds of complicated things that makes that work hard, and I believe that those are all things we can teach. That’s part of what Character Strong does, is it teaches those foundational skills that allows us to engage in the kind of conversations you’re talking about.
But let’s say I’m having that conversation with someone right now, which we do a lot in our work at Character Strong. We serve a lot of different diverse schools and families and students in our work. So I come back to words, because words are perspectives and paradigms. And most of the time we experience conflict, it’s because we are talking about things from totally different perspectives. So you might say the word diversity or equity or inclusion, and that’s going to mean something in your brain that is sometimes totally different from how someone else thinks about it in theirs.
So if I were engaging in a conversation, the first thing I would ask is like, “Hey, when you use that word equity, what does that mean to you?” Then just seek to understand first and make sure that we have a common language. And if your definition is different than mine, I might say that. I might say, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I think about it like this.” Do we have anything in common in those definitions that we can operate from? Because before we argue what’s on the far side of that, which we might have valid different viewpoints on, let’s make sure that we’re actually talking about the same thing. If I were to offer the practical first tip, it’s seek to create common language before you start talking about the things themselves.

Carrie Fox:
Houston, I am so glad that we had this time together. I mean, it’s just in that, right? What a simple, practical reminder that maybe it’s so close to us that folks forget how easy it is to just pause and ask a question if you’re in a different or a difficult dialogue, right? We’re always more alike than we are different if we can focus on the commonalities, right?

Houston Kraft:
Yeah.

Carrie Fox:
Where do folks go to learn more both about the book and about Character Strong?

Houston Kraft:
Totally. Well, character strong.com will teach you and tell you a bit more about what we’re up to serving schools. We work with about 5,000 schools all over the world, teaching the skills that I think … I like to say kindness is a behavior informed by a lot of skills that live beneath it, and so our goal is to teach the skills that inform behaviors that create a more compassionate world. If you want to learn about the book, it’s just deepkindness.com. Those are two places you can learn more about, whether it’s school oriented or if you want to zoom out and think about kindness more holistically. That’s deepkindness.com.

Carrie Fox:
Well, thanks for sharing your talents and your insights with us today. I am so grateful for you and for what you have started, and look forward to continuing to follow your work.

Houston Kraft:
Likewise, Carrie. Thank you.

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