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Gentleness Is a Strength: Go Softly, Slowly, and Sweetly

This constellation of character strengths is crucial for you right now.

 VIA Institute/DepositPhotos
Source: VIA Institute/DepositPhotos

Gentleness is a strength, a strength of character.

What is gentleness?

  • Gentleness is seen in the handling of adversity with a calm, even-handedness.
  • It’s seen in the soft nature of how people act when they are around other people.
  • It’s witnessed in the sweet reverence for wildlife and all forms of life.
  • Gentleness is observed in the slow turn of one’s own head to feel the wind touch the cheek.
  • It’s the getting down on one knee to listen to a child and look them in the eye.
  • When you have to carry three eggs in one hand across the room, that’s where you will find it.
  • And then you’ll see it when you carefully walk around the eggshells of a sensitive or difficult topic with someone.
  • Gentleness is there in the lightness of a feather sitting in the palm of your open hand.
  • It’s there in the calm look in someone’s eyes after they’ve been yelled at.
  • It’s the steady, comfortable smile someone gives as they operate under intense pressure on their job.
  • It’s the slow, mindful walk of a person who's surrounding by a bustling loud vibrant city street.
  • It’s present in the inner silence we have at any time of wonder, struggle, or boredom.
  • When someone is listening to another person’s pain, gentleness is there in the holding of the suffering.
  • Gentleness finds its way by freely letting go of the baggage of a problem so as not to interfere with the next interaction.
  • It truly enjoys attending to the other without a care for one’s own agenda or plans.
  • Gentleness operates with an unwavering, steady hand that knows its path forward.

The Science

We know almost nothing about gentleness from a scientific perspective. Gentleness has been a relatively popular topic in Christian circles and among theologians. But, not among scientists. And not among many other belief systems.

A science of gentleness would be off to a good start with a strong definition of what gentleness is and a validated measurement tool to assess it.

In order to support that, I'll offer some hypotheses about the character strengths that might encompass this strength called gentleness. It's likely that gentleness is a compound character strength, or a character strength constellation. This refers to characteristics that cannot be boiled down to a single strength or construct (which is one of the main criteria set forth by scientists when creating the comprehensive VIA Classification of character strengths). Instead, the strength seems to reflect multiple strengths together (a model of 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, or close to 3 as no combination will perfectly capture all the nuances of a multi-layered construct). Other compound character strengths, if you follow the science, include mindfulness, grit, respect, patience, responsibility, the propensity to apologize, encouragement, and tolerance.

Let's attempt to understand gentleness as a compound strength within the lens of this VIA Classification. Gentleness involves being down to earth (humility), having a quiet ego (humility), being quick to let things go (forgiveness), having a soft and supportive demeanor (kindness), and being oriented toward the other (kindness). Hence, my perspective is gentleness fits under the virtues of humanity and temperance and is captured by the primary character strengths of humility, forgiveness, and kindness.

Of course, gentleness is more than those three. There are a few secondary character strengths to consider. Gentle people seem to be empathic and grounded with their emotions (social intelligence), offer deep tenderness for others (love), as well as a high degree of openness/receptivity (judgment or curiosity).

To be sure, we can keep going and filter through virtually any of the character strengths as we consider a versatile construct like gentleness. We can be gentle with our curious questioning of a friend. We can be gentle with an injured bird resting in our hand (appreciation of beauty). And, we can be gentle with ourselves as we face our fears (bravery).

Gentleness is an incredible trait. I'll never forget the nurse who was helping one of my kids after a surgery and cleaning them up and taking off sticky bandages. She kept repeating, "Gentle touches, gentle touches," as she took her necessary action. No doubt this helped my son feel more calm and tolerant of the post-operative procedure.

Perhaps gentleness is the ultimate "other-oriented strength"? Those who are the "gentle souls" (and we all know some) are the ones who softly walk from place to place, sweetly and humbly attend to anyone they encounter, and are so soft and light that they don't carry the baggage from the last interaction. They left that far behind.

Gentleness matters. It's time to elevate it in research and practice.

A Call to You

This post is a call to researchers: Let's study this constellation of strengths together! Feel free to reach out to me.

This post is a call to practitioners: Bring gentleness to how you approach your clients. And, teach them about gentleness. Share your stories with me.

This post is a call to the rest of us: How might your life be different with a little bit more gentleness toward yourself, toward your family, toward the world?

More from Ryan M. Niemiec Psy.D.
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