The Anatomy of Acknowledgement
Nigel Ipp – Nodi
A wonderful and successful drama teacher told me how she often felt she’d failed her own children and she didn’t understand why. She told me how she praised them again and again and it didn’t seem to help them develop the kind of self esteem that she would have liked to see in them, even though they were all successful adults. I empathised. It seemed the effect of the praise, instead of building self esteem, led the children to want to please their mother. The focus of the child was on wanting to please, not on what they had actually done to deserve her praise. Their action which is sometimes an ability, a gift, a skill, is something to acknowledge, but it is often obscureed in the fray of the praise / approval dynamics. What we learn through praise is a little about our self and our behaviour and a lot about how to please our parents or whomever is the praisor. This can subconsciously lead to fear of being rejected, because not knowing what it is that parents / teachers actually want can be confusing and scarey. We may feel rejected if praise is withdrawn. Upon refletion we can wonder: Could praise therefore have been one of the earliest forms of sublimal rejection? Convoluted indeed!!
Research has shown that the feeling of rejection runs deep in our neurological survival mechanisms. It shows that the feeling of rejection, even when projected from our imagination, can result in pretty dramatic reactions. The fear of rejection is primal. We want to be included, safe and good enough because when we aren’t, we worry about not being accepted and this could and would have in tribal times, resulted in exclusion from our group. So primal reaction remains hardwired into our brains, resulting in us seeking ways to know we are safe in our relationships.
When praise is being given, it’s hard to notice who it’s really about. In praise our emotional response floods, obscuring both the praiser and the praised’s perception that what is happening, is the pleasure of the adult / boss praiser. As children, we are then conditioned to think our job is to behave in ways that influence the adult to feel good about us and the signal to the child that they have succeeded, is usually praise. The child feels safe because the adult is happy, thus as children we grow to feel accepted in the group / family / class.
Another dynamic is that praise is often about what hasn’t been achieved. “You did good, but how come you made those mistakes?” The comment focuses mainly on what is wrong, on what didn’t work, which by implication means unless there is improvement next time, there could be a negative response, including a feeling of rejection. But for a child and even an adult, this misses the fact that what has been achieved was in and of itself admirable and a sign of success.
A praised person often doesn’t actually know what it is they have done that is being praised. Often the emotional atmosphere created by the praiser dominates the attention, as it’s their approval that we notice, “You are such a good girl”, is about the opinion of the praiser. They are usually in a position of higher rank – teacher, parent, boss, facilitator etc. Their ‘I’ dominates the emotional space – ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’. Often the praiser subconsciously makes their own sense of ‘adequacy and good enoughness’ the focus. By focusing on ‘goodness’ the message is primal, it speaks a sense of being accepted or rejected. Then if the student or child doesn’t do well enough, the teacher or parent will often feel it as a reflection on them. As a result some classrooms and homes have a subliminal agenda, ‘if you don’t do well enough, you are letting the side down, you are making the adults feel uncomfortable and even embarrassed by not achieving the standard set by the adult’.
Praise then is about the praiser and undermines the development of the praised because the focus becomes the pleasure, approval and the mood of the praiser.
What becomes obscured by praise, is the focus on the effort or action that attracted the praise. The action drawing the praise is clouded out. There is another approach which is effective in building realistic self esteem and self image and supports a self fulfilling prophecy that leads to continued growth and development of the individual. This approach uses the process of acknowledgement. Acknowledgement is about the acknowledged person and not the person doing the acknowledging. Acknowledgement is NOT praise. Praise wants you to feel good because I approve of you. We’ve all heard the saying, “It was all empty praise”, but not acknowledgement. Acknowledgement says it all, because it names a specific action that happened which is now being acknowledged. Not only that, as Linda Popov of the Virtues Project emphasises, acknowledgement builds a person’s character, by naming something that is invisible. This is the abstract quality or virtue behind the action. It can be a mix of virtues, that motivate us to act with social intelligence instead of defensive fragility. Such an acknowledgement leads to the person finding out that they have invisible virtues which are part of their character which forms who they are. This supports us to develop a powerful and effective self image which clarifies our identity and builds realistic self esteem. Awakened virtues then become an independent, intrinsic inner resource that can be called on in many different circumstances. These virtues become our character strengths.
It is best to keep the acknowledgement in the feedback as simple as possible, “I see your peacefulness when you sort out problems”. This example uses the virtue of peacefulness and names what is happening when it is shown. Each time we acknowledge, we make the call in the moment about the action and the virtues motivating this action. The key is: sincerity of focus on the action and the virtue used: “I see the development you have achieved in your maths. You have shown determination and patience in your effort to improve your understanding of fractions”. Here the acknowledging is like being a gardener who waters and nurtures the garden, in this case, the improvement made in fractions. It reflects the understanding that great gardens are tended for weeks and months, before they reach their potential.
These words of acknowledgement touch us intrisically. We feel support for the specific thing we have done, our understanding of fractions. Offering this delicately with tact, honesty and emotionally intelligent tones, increases the authenticity of what is being said. Often a matter of fact type approach which is gentle and positive, surprises people, because they don’t have to handle a strong emotional content. Just the right amount of emotion allows the acknowledged person to actually hear what you are saying. It is truthful and therefore meaningful. Empathy increases the likelihood of being heard, reading body language and context, for it helps us to know how far to go.
These acknowledgements are honest and accurate. They are true. Therefore this approach tells the person that you ‘get them’. You are on the same page because they know that what you are saying is true. That alignment of both people being on the same page allows resonance, understanding and appreciation. This clarity makes a noticeable difference to relationships, as it is a scaffolding which supports the development of character.
In conclusion, acknowledgement is about the specific action you actually see. Acknowledgment combines the invisible quality or virtue together with the action that it motivates. These virtue/s could be courage, gentleness, respect, purposefulness, love, kindness, care etc. These virtues are the invisible intrinsic energies which motivate and lead people to do the positive things they do.
Nadi Ipp – email@example.com
Developed from the Virtues Project – http://www.virtuesproject.com