Alison Whitmire's picture Submitted by Alison Whitmire August 28, 2018 - 4:13pm

In our last post, we talked about what an acknowledgement is, why it’s important, and what makes it hard. If you missed our last post, you can find it here.

In the past, part of my difficulty with acknowledging someone has been knowing what to say. I’d be able to notice the opportunity to acknowledge, and then I’d get all stuck in my head about what to say and how to say it.

That’s why we created this quick and easy How to Acknowledge Primer for anyone who wants to build better relationships and get better at acknowledging, but isn’t sure how.

First, a bit of clarification.

What’s the difference between an Acknowledgement, a Compliment and Positive Feedback?

Good question. All of these terms can sound the same, but the nuanced differences between them are important. A compliment, while positive, is often nonspecific, and can easily contain an implicit judgment.

For example, if I say, "You did that well,"" I’m making a nonspecific comment and a subtle judgment. I’m judging that you did something well. And while a compliment is better than a sharp stick in the eye :), it falls short of acknowledgement.

Positive feedback is a step above a compliment because of its specificity. In some instances, it has been found to help people perform better. Positive feedback tends to be mainly focused on performance (what someone is doing) and usually comes with an agenda (to improve performance).

For example, if Ben works for me, and I say, "Ben, that spreadsheet you put together was so detailed, it helped bring to light several issues we were unaware of. Great work!" "My praise of Ben is focused on my judgement of what was good about his performance, especially in those areas that I would like to see repeated and expanded. Ben probably will focus on being detailed now.

Don’t get me wrong. A compliment and positive feedback (typically) are better than criticism, finding fault or saying nothing at all. They may be a place to start for someone whose natural tendency is to focus more on what’s not working than on what is.

But, an acknowledgement is different.

An acknowledgement recognizes the whole of the person, both who they are being and what they are doing.

It does so in specific and evocative language that feels true to both the giver and receiver. An acknowledgement is more a statement of a shared reality than a judgement. It focuses slightly more on who the person is being than on what they are doing.

An acknowledgement is a powerful way of saying "I see you. I see you being who you are proud to be."

Making Challenging Relationships Better Through Acknowledgement

Acknowledging people we are in conflict with, or have a challenging relationship with, may not come naturally. When we are in conflict, we may tend to look for what’s wrong versus what’s good, and that has the impact of worsening the relationship. Consider this approach for improving an important and challenging work relationship:

Identify someone with whom you’d like to have a better relationship. (A client, a coworker, a subordinate, a peer, your boss.) Get clear within yourself why you want a better relationship and what’s important about it. What would having a better relationship give you? Hold on tight to your answer.

Example: Maybe you want a better working relationship with your peer. You can’t fire your peer (although you might like to). Your peer makes you crazy in twenty-seven different ways. If you did have a better working relationship with your peer, you’d get more done together, be more successful, and enjoy your work more. Focus on that! Focus on the possibility that things can change. Your relationship can be better. And know that the changes in yourself can change the whole relationship. Believe it, ‘cause it’s true!

In your next interaction with that person, proactively look for qualities and behaviors in them that align with what you value. This ensures that the acknowledgement will feel authentic for both of you. Look for something positive in the other person, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

If it is easier for you to see what’s wrong, or what’s not working, than what is (and some of us are just like that, and that’s ok), notice those things and then let them go. If your goal is to build a better, more productive, working relationship with someone, I can pretty much guarantee you it’s not going to get there by being critical. Let go of the criticism and focus on what you want:a better relationship. Look for the good.

Once you have a better relationship, maybe you can make some headway on what’s not working. First things first. Makes sense, right?!

Example: You are working together on a big project with your peer. It’s important to both of your careers. You need your peer and their contribution for you to be successful. Your peer has been behind on their part of the project, slow to answer your questions, and presented little detail when they do answer, which leaves that many more questions. You’re frustrated. You’ve scheduled a meeting with your peer and they are late ("as always," you might be thinking).

Your peer appears a bit flustered. You lay out the agenda for the meeting and you launch into the first agenda item: obtaining answers to your questions about their design. They pull out a flowchart and start talking through it. You listen explicitly for the purpose of finding something to acknowledge. The flowchart and their explanation of the design doesn’t answer all of your questions, but it’s a start. You put aside the fact that they were late, that it’s taken what seems like forever to get to this point, and all of the many questions that are still unanswered. Instead, you focus on what you value in your peer’s demonstration.

"You’ve created something very clarifying with this flowchart. It answers many of my questions. I can tell that you really attended to my concerns when creating it. And your explanations are detailed and thorough. This is progress!"

Wouldn’t that be a decent start to improving your relationship? It’s a kind of positive feedback / acknowledgement combo meal.

You acknowledged who your peer is being (attentive to your concerns), as well as what they are doing (creating a clarifying flowchart and providing detailed and thorough explanations). Those things are valuable to you.

Now, in that same 45 minute meeting, you may find seven more things that are totally not what you wanted or expected. I’m not suggesting that you should ignore them. But dwelling on what’s wrong and being passively (or actively) critical about it, isn’t getting you anywhere. You can still focus on what’s right and ensure what’s important stays on track. How about this as a way to finish off the meeting?

"Since we’ve gotten off our original timeline, we need a new project timeline, and I have a bunch more questions. If the new timeline and your answers to my questions are as clear, detailed and thorough as the flowchart you did, we’ll be off to a great start. When do you think we could get a new timeline and have those questions answered? Oh, and what could I do to make it easier for you?"

You may feel like you are just pandering at this point. But focus on what you want! You want a better relationship with your peer, so that you can get what you need from them, so you can get the project done and be successful in your career. Keep your eyes on the prize.

If you focus your energy on building a better relationship through acknowledgement so that you can be more successful yourself, that may help you move past what’s not serving you in that relationship (focusing on the negative, being critical, finding fault), and get you more of what you want.

Making Good Relationships Better Through Acknowledgement

While acknowledging someone you already have a good relationship with may be more natural, it can still be challenging to find the right words. Consider this approach for improving important relationships, such as those with parents, children, friends, close work relationships, or your spouse:

Identify someone important to you with whom you want to have a better relationship. Tune into what makes that important to you. What will be the impact on your life of having a better relationship? Focus on your answer to that question. (Recognize how critically important close relationships are to our health and happiness.)

In your next interaction, focus on who the person is being and not so much on what they are doing. Attend to the ways in which they are being what they value. Such as: they are being generous, kind, courageous, attentive, independent, resourceful, thoughtful, helpful, caring, strong, supportive, observant, loving, warm, considerate. These are qualities more of being than of doing. These qualities recognize who the person is.

State your experience of the other person in the present moment. Blurt it out, don’t think too much about exactly how to say it. It doesn’t matter.

Example: You have a young son with learning differences. His brain is wired differently, and it makes it harder for him to understand things that are easier for other people. He has a hard time remembering things. He’s challenged to follow directions with more than one step. You want to help him feel more confident, but have a hard time finding something concretely positive to acknowledge in him. Your son has gotten up early one Saturday morning, he didn’t wake you, and he got himself some cereal for breakfast. (And he made a mess.) Ignore the mess.

"Good morning, son... Goodness! You are so resourceful! You got your own breakfast. You are being so independent!" You may not see the impact of your acknowledgements immediately. Over time, you’ll see how much your acknowledging who that person is being gives them confidence and pride and improves your relationship with them.

Another example: Your spouse has been away all week, leaving the work of maintaining the household to you. After coming home and relaxing a bit, your spouse does a small task that is normally yours to do.

"Honey, you must have read my mind. I’m so beat from this week. You are so considerate and helpful to empty out the garbage for me. I know it’s a small thing, but it’s a surprisingly big help. Thank you."

Over the top? Maybe. (It has to be sincere.) But don’t you want to have a great relationship with your spouse? Sure, you could focus on all that your spouse is NOT doing, but what would that help? Could it hurt to focus on what you value about how they are being and what they are doing?

A final example: Your sister, who you hardly ever hear from, calls. You talk about your aging parents. You don’t realize how much you needed to talk with someone about how you are feeling.

"Sis, I’m so glad you called. You are calm and comforting and easy to talk to. And I really needed to talk, more than I realized."

Take it For a Test Drive

Try out these acknowledgements and let us know how they work. And share how they can be improved. We love feedback (positive or negative) – AND acknowledgment. Do you have an approach of your own? We’d love to hear about it.