Revisiting Start with Thanks

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Start with Thanks” where I unpacked my missteps with some colleagues. In the post, I wrote about how a group of faculty had collaborated to plan an event for students on campus and when the event was held, I forgot to thank them for their efforts. That oversight mistakenly communicated that their work wasn’t important. It also left their efforts unseen to the attendees. I wrote that post as a way to reflect on my mistakes and to offer a plan for doing better. In the post, I drew on an NPR interview with David DeSteno, the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, where he discussed the long-term importance of saying “Thank You.”

In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.”

So, I wrote that initial post as a reminder to “start with thanks” and to communicate my gratitude to the people whose work, time and contributions I value.

If that post was written as a reminder, this post is being offered as a revision. While I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at remembering to “start with thanks” and acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues, I’m reconsidering how best to express my gratitude. I’ve been reading a book titled How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (Kegan & Lehay, 2001). As the title suggests, the authors introduce different “languages” and discuss how we often don’t communicate in the most supportive ways. While the first four chapters are dedicated to the “internal languages” we use with ourselves, chapter 5 focuses on gratitude and the “language of ongoing regard” we express to others. I have to admit that this chapter has really shake me to my core. It has also prompted me to reflect on how I communicate my gratitude with my friends, my family, and my coworkers.  Here’s why.

According to the authors, I’ve been doing it all wrong. And maybe you have, too.

Let me provide an example. Over the last few months, a group of colleagues, community members, and I got together to plan a large community event. I was asked to give some introductory remarks where I channeled my “start with thanks” mantra and thanked the planning committee. Here’s what I said.

“I want to thank the planning committee for their hard work and dedication in planning this event. While I’m standing up here, they’re the ones whose commitment and efforts made this event happen. Thanks.”

According to Kegan and Lahey, that offering of praise and gratitude falls short of “ongoing regard” because I haven’t fully expressed my appreciation or admiration for their work. They write:

Ongoing regard has two faces, one of appreciation and the other of admiration… When we are expressing appreciation, we let the other person know that we have received something we value. We feel we have been given something – not necessarily a material something- that we are happy to have, or feel benefited by having. When we express admiration, it less about something value entering our sphere and more about our taking up temporary residence in the other’s sphere. We imaginatively inhabit the other’s world and find ourselves instructed, inspired, or in some way enhanced by the other’s actions or choices.” (pg. 94)

To do better, I need to revise how I communicate my ongoing regard by including three elements: being direct, being specific, being nonattributive.

Being Direct
When communicating gratitude, I need to thank the person (or persons) directly and not place them in an eavesdropper role where they’re hearing my thanks offered to others. In my thank-yous, I need to avoid using third-person pronouns (they, she, he, etc.) and use more second-person pronouns (you, your, etc.). While that change in language may seem minor, it changes so much of how the communication appears. “Being direct” means the expression of gratitude is less of a performance for others, but a genuine recognition of the admiration and appreciation of the one being thanked.

Being Specific
Like the first element, “being specific” appears pretty straightforward, but has larger implications for how we communicate gratitude. To embrace a “language of ongoing regard,” I must identify specifically what I appreciate and what I admire.

Being Nonattributive
This element was the hardest for me to get my head around. To express a “language of ongoing regard,” I have to avoid identifying other people’s attributes but focus on my own experiences. What did I witness or experience that I want to acknowledge? I have to avoid characterizations and generalizations about the person and focus on the activity. The authors’ rationale for this one is pretty compelling. They write:

If we characterize people, even if we do so quite positively, we actually engage, however unintentionally, in the rather presumptuous activity of entitling ourselves to say who and how the other is. We entitle ourselves to confer upon people the sources of their worthiness.” (p. 99)

Rather than focus on what I see as the person’s attributes, a better approach is to focus on the actual admirable work that I witness and want to recognize.

So, while I’m still working on “starting with thanks” to acknowledge the amazing work of my colleagues and collaborators, I’m finding that I need to revise how I offer my gratitude in ways that are “less subject to formulaic insincerity” and more fully communicates my recognition and admiration of their work.

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