Noticing the Good: Expressing Appreciation
[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]
DURING THIS TIME OF PANDEMIC, it’s so easy to let one day merge into the next, without celebrating our accomplishments or mourning our losses. We’re stressed, we’re exhausted, we’re frustrated and anxious. We long for the ease and comfort of pre-COVID life, which seems very far away. In our weariness, we may focus on what’s not working and forget about moments of joy.
On the flip side, we sometimes numb ourselves to avoid despair—which makes sense in the moment, but creates more suffering down the road. If we don’t let ourselves experience emotional pain, it never really goes away. Instead, the ache lingers and seeps into other parts of our lives, often manifesting as depression. When we forget to acknowledge either our celebrations or our grief, we can fall into a fog, missing out on the truth and beauty of our lives.
But how do we rewire our brains to pay attention? One of the most powerful, science-based tools is a journal. It turns out that naming what we’re grateful for on a daily basis actually changes body chemistry. In a 2016 pilot study, patients with heart failure were divided into two groups: one group received standard medical care; the other group obtained the same medical care but also kept gratitude journals.
The results were remarkable: the patients who recorded their celebrations reduced inflammation and stress responses. In other words, just writing down what they appreciated every day improved their physical health in measurable ways. (Similarly, it can also be helpful to honor the events we’re grieving—otherwise, it may feel dishonest or dismissive to catalog only the happy parts of our lives and ignore the rest.)
WHEN WE’RE ACKNOWLEDGING GRATITUDE, the way we do so makes a difference. In everyday life, when someone wants to express appreciation, they usually make a broad, general statement like “You’re amazing!” or “Great job!” It can feel wonderful to receive this kind of praise, especially when we’ve accomplished a difficult task. But the downside is that these comments aren’t very personal; we might doubt that the other person truly sees us. Moreover, these generic remarks aren’t very informative: they don’t tell us WHY the other person values our actions. And finally, compliments like this are actually judgments that the speaker has about us. Of course receiving a positive opinion (“you’re so smart”) feels a lot better than hearing a negative one (“you’re so lazy”). Even so, it’s based on someone’s assessment of our character—who they think we are—instead of offering appreciation for what we did. Meanwhile, we still don’t know why our actions matter to the other person.
AS A CONSULTANT, IF A CLIENT SAYS that my workshop was “great,” I’m pleased, but it leaves me wondering what I did that was useful or supportive. It’s like eating junk food: it tastes good in the moment, but leaves you hungry and uneasy later. Receiving praise feels nice, but it doesn’t give me any feedback about how to replicate a successful class. On the other hand, if a participant tells me that when I wrote key facts on the whiteboard, it helped them understand the topic we were discussing, now I know what actually works.
In writing about appreciation, Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), explains that expressing gratitude has three parts: First, we tell the other person what they did that contributed to our well-being; next, we say what positive feelings we had; and finally, we indicate what needs were met.
Another way of describing this is that when we communicate appreciation, we want to identify:
1. Observations: What did the other person do that was helpful to us?
2. Feelings: How did we feel about this?
3. Needs: What needs and core values were met?
When we use this method to convey gratitude, we give the other person specific information about why they matter to us—which enables them to learn and grow from the experience. It also shows that we genuinely see and value their actions.
SUPPOSE, FOR EXAMPLE, that a colleague helps us with a project at work and we want to thank them. We could say, “Hey, that was great!” and leave it at that. But we can also use Collaborative Communication (another name for NVC) to acknowledge something richer and deeper:
“You know, when we talked through that sales report together, it was so much easier for me to understand the numbers than when I read the document by myself.”
“I was anxious and stressed out, but now I’m feeling relieved and much more calm.”
“Instead of being out there on my own, discussing the report with you gave me a sense of support and partnership.”
Expressing appreciation in this way gives the other person more details about what they did and why it mattered—which is more fulfilling to hear than “Hey, thanks, that was good.”
HAVING LOOKED AT WAYS TO GIVE APPRECIATION, what happens when we receive it? Many of us feel uncomfortable when someone expresses gratitude. As children, we may have been told not to brag or be “full of ourselves.” If someone thanks us, we might think we’re not worthy of admiration. Or we could be worried that the other person is trying to manipulate us—that they’re speaking only because they want a favor. Or maybe we’re concerned that we can’t live up to the other person’s expectations and will disappoint them in the future.
Collaborative Communication encourages us to believe that we (and all humans) deserve to be valued and honored. We can receive appreciation in the same way we hear other things that people say: we can listen for the heart of the matter. Whether someone is expressing positive or negative thoughts, we can translate what they say into observations, feelings and needs. On some level, it’s all just information; we can take in what’s useful and leave the rest. Or as Rosenberg writes:
We hear what we have done that has contributed to others’ well-being; we hear their feelings and the needs that were fulfilled. We take into our hearts the joyous reality that we can each enhance the quality of others’ lives. (From Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)
LISA MONTANA came to conflict resolution from the business world where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. With Collaborative Communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.
Lisa is a trainer at Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) and the Center for Efficient Collaboration (CEC). Since 2013, she has taught conflict resolution at San Quentin California State Prison. She has also been a lead trainer with a year-long mediation program based on Nonviolent Communication. In her private practice, Lisa’s business and organizational clients value her ability to solve problems efficiently and discern core issues in complex situations. Her workshops help participants strengthen their communication skills in a lively and supportive environment.
Lisa works with individuals, businesses and organizations around the country, providing: leadership and executive coaching; conflict resolution; training in Collaborative Communication; and facilitation of group meetings and decision-making.
Contact Lisa at: Lisa@BayNVC.org
Copyright ⓒ 2021 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission and attribution.