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How Do You Shift from a Feeling of ‘Have To’ to ‘Get To’?

March 22, 2018

I was toast!

It was a Thursday night, a couple of months ago. I was frantically preparing to facilitate a full-day workshop on Friday for a coaching client and his team – and I felt ill-prepared. On top of that, I was to facilitate a full-day retreat for the CEO roundtable I facilitate on Saturday… at my home!

And I wasn’t ready. Ugh! And I was tight as a drum.

I explored the experience with my coach afterward. She asked “What had you choose that response?” It was fortunate that it was a video coaching call, because I kinda wanted to slap her. 😉

I responded, “Well, I suppose I did choose that response, and it certainly wasn’t an intentional choice.”

What became clear after our exploration was that my tightness and rigidity was being driven by the story I was telling myself. It was a story of “have tos.”

The Tyranny of the “Have To”

I was telling myself … “I HAVE to get this work done. I have to do it well.

“I have to figure out how I’ll help my client achieve the somewhat fuzzy outcomes he’s wanting. I have to be professional and buttoned up and prepared. I have to clean the house for the retreat. I have to get the dining room set up, make it festive, make food, get drinks, snacks, fidgets, paper, pens. I have to figure out something creative to do and it has to be good!”

Have to.. have to… have to…. That is what I was telling myself.

All of these “have tos” had me feeling angry, resentful, stressed, inept, anxious and regretful.  My “have tos” had triggered a full spectrum of distressing emotions. And I felt rigid and optionless.

Then something shifted.

I wish I could say it was something I did. Some training that kicked in. Some mindful intention. But that would be false.

I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden, there was a sliver of light, an increase in space, some breathing room, that wasn’t there before.  

I was beginning the shift from “have to” to “get to.” This is my reverse engineering of what I think happened.

Observing the Experience

Something inside me said “This isn’t working. This feels too hard. I’m stressed, resentful, and bound up. And it shouldn’t be this way.”

Observing myself and naming my feelings and my experience created some space. Many of you will know this process as “Name it to tame it.” Neuroscientists have proven that when we observe and name our feelings, our brains calm down.

Dropping the Resistance

Once my brain had calmed down, I was able to recognize that all of my many “have tos” were a sign of resistance. “Have to” is fundamentally different from “going to,” “want to” or “get to.”   

Within my “have to” was an implied obligation – a sense of choicelessness. A resistance to embracing and accepting what was.

My “have to” was my story’s way of saying, “No, this isn’t right. It shouldn’t be happening.” And yet it was.

When I dropped my resistance and accepted my situation, and what was in front of me, I relaxed. When I relaxed, I could see more possibility.

Looking For a New Perspective

Once I relaxed, I was able to ask myself, “What’s another way of looking at this?” I was reminded of something my 87-year-old dad told me just before he passed.

My dad was an entrepreneur and he went to work regularly up until a couple of weeks before he died. He explained his insistence on going to work this way, “When you get to be my age, you need a way to feel relevant.”

His words struck me. And stuck with me.

At the time, my dad was nearly blind, practically deaf without hearing aids and required no small amount of care from others. And his motivation, what kept him wanting to get out of bed in the morning, was his drive to be relevant, to matter, to make a difference.

And perhaps his fear of losing relevance.

And here I was. I had people wanting from me something I wanted to do and loved to do. And they were willing to pay me to do it. I realized what a gift I’d been given.What a rare and sweet opportunity I have to be relevant!

This realization shifted everything.  

I felt so fortunate. So grateful. That new perspective lifted my spirits and buoyed my creativity.  

Creating More Choices

All of my choiceless “have tos” had me bought in to the belief that I was locked in to a rigid set of obligations. That things had to be a certain way for them to be right.

When I changed my perspective, I could see that I had many more choices available to me.

I could nix the Powerpoint. Or I could make the presentation super simple. I could bring an easel and markers and wing it. I could buy the food instead of making food for the retreat.

I could let go of needing to perform and simply be present for my clients and for my roundtable members.I had so many options that made me feel lighter and more at choice. By the time I’d gone through these steps, I was changed. I had a new story.

I’d moved from “have to” to “get to.”   

The Energy of “Get To”

Once I was able to notice myself, shift my perspective and see more choice, I was super energized and relaxed.

My new story was, “I get to be with my client and his team tomorrow. I get to help them clarify their mission and vision and values. I get to help them make their work lives more meaningful. And I get to spend Saturday with people I enjoy and respect, can learn from and can teach. I’m so lucky.”

As you know if you read this blog much, I tend to be suspicious of platitudes like, “Look on the bright side” or “Happiness is a choice you make” or “Keep an attitude of gratitude.” All of those clichés just make me feel like I’m getting it wrong.

What I’m learning is that moving from “have to” to “get to” isn’t a platitude or a cliché. It’s a practice. Like yoga is a practice.The more I work the process, the more muscle I build around it. And I have lots of muscles to build.

What about you? How do you get from “have to” to “get to” when you are distressed? How might your working this process help you? How might you use this process to help you coach your clients from “have to” to “get to”?

Join the conversation.

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Posted in: Attitude

Can Anger Be Good?

March 16, 2018

Yes….is the short answer. Lest I give ragers permission to rage, I’ll explain further.

All emotions contain both information and gifts. Our emotions contain messages that no other dimension of our experience provides. If we don’t experience an emotion, we lose access to important information about ourselves and our experience. Also, each emotion comes with its own gifts that improve the quality of our relationships. Believe it or not, anger can improve the quality of our relationships! Crazy, right?

The Information in Anger

The information or message for us in the emotion of anger is “I’ve been violated” or “Someone / something I value has been violated,” or “This is not what I wanted / expected / hoped for.” All meaning, something is not right here!

Often times, our anger is prompted by a violation of our values. Even though we might not know for sure what those values are. Other times, our anger is triggered by unmet expectations. Regardless of how reasonable or communicated or clear those expectations might be.

Anger can be like the lightning rod that points us in the direction of our values, our unmet needs, our boundaries. It provides us with important clues to our inner world, the assumptions we make, the ideals we hold, the projections and presumptions we place on others and the world.

The Gifts of Anger

The gifts of anger, when received, demonstrate how anger can be good for us and for our relationships. The gifts of anger include boundary-setting, direction-setting, and motivation.

Anger helps us identify for ourselves and others what’s okay and what’s not okay,

helping us to set clear boundaries. Anger has a way of clarifying what’s important to us, providing direction, making clear what was previously foggy. Anger can give us the energy to right a wrong, to take a stand, not just for ourselves but for others, as well.

Anger, when experienced in proportion to the situation, and addressed with care for others, can be an appropriate response that fosters healthy relationships.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” This saying is so old and has been adopted by so many cultures that no one quite knows its origin. Anger is like an emotional fence that helps us to maintain a healthy separation from others, to stay differentiated from others. It helps us know where we stop and others start. Even Benjamin Franklin said, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Smart man.

What Do We Mean By Anger

Some people think of anger one way: bug-eyed fury. That’s not how most people experience anger. Anger is not binary, on or off. And it’s not one volume, screeching or silent. Anger is an emotional spectrum from mild irritation to outrage.

All of the following emotions fall somewhere on the spectrum of the emotion of anger: (in no particular order) annoyed, frustrated, irritated, ticked, impatient, perturbed, dismayed, infuriated, outraged, bitter, indignant, mad, seething, cross, enraged, provoked, rankled, riled, livid, vexed, appalled, spiteful.

Some people insist they don’t feel anger, perhaps because they’d prefer not to think of themselves as angry (or want to be seen that way). However, they often recognize feeling irritated or frustrated or annoyed or impatient. All of these emotions are nuanced colors within the emotional color palate of anger.

Feeling Angry ≠ Acting Angry

Many people conflate the concepts of feeling angry and acting angry. We are used to hearing things like “I am angry!” Meaning I = Angry. Feeling, being, and acting are all merged into one. When I = Angry, there is no space for observation or choice.

However, we can feel angry and not = angry or act angry.

We have a choice point between our internal experience of our feeling and our behavior. We may not recognize that choice, and it’s there. Acting angry may feel almost involuntary for us, until we learn to understand ourselves, what is triggering our anger and how to press pause to determine an appropriate response. Feeling angry and expressing it in ways that both connect and separate us is essential for a healthy relationship, personal or professional.

What’s Lost by Not Experiencing Anger

If we don’t access our anger (and some people don’t), we lose the information it would provide. We don’t acknowledge or connect with the violation or the unmet need. As a result, we tolerate behaviors from others that those who experience healthy levels of anger wouldn’t tolerate. And our toleration of otherwise intolerable behaviors teaches people how they can treat us.

If we don’t access anger, we don’t enjoy its gifts. We may not set boundaries. We may not take a stand for ourselves or others. We may allow people to manipulate, take advantage of, or unintentionally overwhelm us with work or emotion. Not accessing anger has significant implications for the quality of our life and relationships.

Why People Don’t Get Angry

If anger has all of this information, these gifts and these obvious advantages, what keeps people from experiencing anger?

Author and addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate, spoke to this question in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss. Dr. Mate connected the dots something like this:

For the first many years of our lives, we are reliant on the care, love and attention of others (usually our parents) for our survival.

During that time, we learn many things, including what’s okay and what’s not okay within our family. If we have parents that were, for example, raised by rageaholics, they might tell us, in so many ways, that “Good little children don’t get angry.” They may chide us or ignore us for our anger. What we learn from that is “Angry little children don’t get loved.”

We need love to survive. So we think, “I’d better not get angry.” We learn not to access anger in order to survive.

Instead of accessing anger to set boundaries and create separation, people who have been taught not to access anger may tend to move toward or merge with persons they are in conflict with, making the other person’s feelings and responsibilities their own. The fear of the loss of connection may cause them to lose the boundary that defines them.

Recognizing Suppressed Anger and the Cost

Many people who suppress their anger, don’t see the cost. They may feel that not experiencing anger is a good thing, a benefit to themselves and their relationships. They may be rewarded for their good behavior. They may have an underlying belief that anger is bad or wrong. They may fear the loss of the relationship more than they fear the loss of themselves.

Leaders who don’t experience anger may encounter a number of challenges that impact their leadership.

They may keep poor performing employees too long. They may suppress their own opinions or give up their authority or defer to others to not “make a fuss.” They may take on more work, more responsibility than is theirs to take. They may rationalize reasons not to delegate, not wanting to put more work on others. As a result, they can easily become overworked and overwhelmed by all that they feel they need / have to take on.

They do all of this, consciously or unconsciously, to stay in relationship. They prioritize their relationships over themselves. (And this shows up in their EQ Profile results.)

Coaching Leaders Who Don’t Access Anger

Leaders who don’t access anger often don’t draw clear boundaries. The two tend to go hand in hand.

Without clear boundaries, leaders tend to take on more than is theirs to take. They feel responsible for not only the work but also the emotions of others. As a result, they feel overworked and overwhelmed.

Often times, these leaders can’t see where or how a boundary could be set. They can’t see the option of asking for help or saying no or not stepping in to catch every falling knife. Drawing boundaries is foreign and uncomfortable for them. They turn a blind eye to the personal toll it takes on them.

A common approach to coaching these leaders would be to inquire about the cost to the leader of taking on so much; to explore how not asking for help and not saying no impacts their health, their well-being, their effectiveness.

The leader may reluctantly admit, “It’s true, I’m burnt out. Yes, I’ll ask for help. Yes, I’ll say ‘no’ next time. Yes, I’ll let my peer / boss / direct report do their own work.” But none of that happens.

In my experience, the way to help leaders who don’t access anger to set boundaries, or say no, or ask for help, is by connecting them with the cost to their loved ones.

When leaders take on too much responsibility, and work longer hours due to not setting boundaries, it often results in less quality time with the people they love most. Their loved ones and their relationships pay the price. When a leader realizes that they might be compromising their most important relationships because of a challenge with setting boundaries, then they can be coached into finding their voice, defining what’s okay and what’s not okay, and connecting with themselves.Ca

Coaches can use the value of the leader’s most important relationships to help the leader draw healthy boundaries elsewhere.

What about you? Do you have clients who don’t access anger? How does it show up? How do you help your clients draw boundaries?

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Posted in: Learning in Action

Who You Are is How You Coach

March 9, 2018


How did an idea – encountered during a dialogue – move coaching beyond competencies and skills?

It was during a conversation 17 years ago that Edna Murdoch, co-founder of the Coaching Supervision Academy, happened upon an idea that Who you are is how you coach!

It’s All About The Client, Right?!

For those who were taught that the coach is never part of the picture – “It’s all about the client.” – this can be quite surprising. Who I am influences how I coach? Really?

I can easily answer who I am: I’m a Master Certified Coach (MCC), a coach educator and I’ve been coaching since at least 1990. I have a name, an address, a social security number, a degree or two; and I’m an ENFP – that’s who I am. At one level, yes.

What Edna was, and is, talking about is more complex: the nuance of how I coach is subtle stuff. It is not only my credentials, my experience, my validated competencies or what it says on my website.

Coaching is not simply a set of techniques, though techniques are important. It is not a set of preplanned transactions, though there are transactions between coach and client.

Coaching is an exchange, an interaction, a dance between two human beings who have experiences, pressures, hopes, dreams, biases, preferences, styles, personalities, patterns… The list goes on and on.

These factors shape who is interacting with the client from moment to moment and session by session throughout a coaching engagement. Who I am at a given moment is how I coach.

The Character of the Coach Matters

On a more technical basis, we can turn to research on the key factors that determine successful outcomes between coach and client. Dr. Erik DeHaan, in Relational Coaching (John Wiley and Sons Ltd, West Sussex, England, 2008), quotes studies about helping professions that conclude the character of the helper is one of four key factors which determines positive outcomes from the engagement.

In other words, once again – who you are matters.

My core self shapes how I interact with and am seen by my clients. If I am reserved, quiet, contemplative by nature, that’s likely to be how I coach. If I am energetic, fast paced, crisp, driving – that’s how I show up. Fortunately, the world is full of clients looking for the right match.

Who We Are Changes

Regardless of that core self, who I am also changes from moment to moment. In different contexts, I am a bit different, and if I know that, I am more prepared to deal with it.

In a stark example, people with whom I work in both French and English say that I’m just a bit different when I speak English and when I speak French.

When I coach a senior executive in a large health care company, I’m a bit different from when I’m working with a scientist. I’m aware that I speak differently. My pace is different.

And, here’s a key point, how I think of myself is a bit different, too. I am quite fond of scientists and, on the other hand, I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with very senior executives in health care.

Knowing this about myself helps me be effective.

Seeing Ourselves in Our Coaching

Another way of looking at who we are comes from Transactional Analysis (TA) – the ego states of parent, adult, and child.

My own supervisor helped me see that at a specific point, my coaching client and I were moving from state to state. I saw that for the briefest moment I was a rebellious child while he was a rather bossy parent. We didn’t get stuck there, but in that moment, my interaction with him and my coaching questions were coming from somewhere other than my best self, my competent MCC self.

What can we do with this notion, “Who you are is how you coach?”

Since 2009, I’ve been studying and teaching  Coaching Supervision, in which a coach strives to be awake, aware, and conscious of all that is happening in a coaching session and relationship. Supervision often comes down to generating a good sense of our core self, our triggers to the extent we can know them and, most importantly, to know what is going on for us from moment to moment.

In supervision, we ask questions such as, what am I experiencing right now? Am I reacting blindly or habitually? Am I distracted or present? Am I a competent adult right now (in the TA sense)?

The story of Alice In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll 1865) illustrates this as well as anything I know. In one passage the caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?”

Alice responds, “I knew who I was when I woke up this morning, but I’ve changed so many times today, I’m not sure.”

As a coach, I believe I am obligated to know, as best I can, who I am as I accompany my clients on their learning journey. During a single day, I, like Alice, have been known to change many times.

Relationship to EQ

Understanding our Emotional Intelligence is part of understanding ourselves as coaches.

Emotional Intelligence calls for us to be self-aware and to self-regulate. It explores our access to a range of feelings, positive-negative balance, balance of thoughts-wants-feelings, self-other balance, empathy and relationship strategies. What I’m calling out here is the need for self-observation in contexts.

The more aware I am of how I show up in various settings, the more capacity I have to make choices in service of my clients. If I’m on autopilot or assume I am as constant as the north star, I delude myself.

One of my great learnings I received was from the EQ Profile, an instrument that measures one’s internal experience under stress.

I learned that I have excessively high standards for myself. If I don’t watch myself, I can go to my cranky place when I’m afraid of not measuring up. It’s not a nice experience for my clients! They get confused about the different Sam who suddenly walked in the room.

Back to France for an example. I was, at a certain moment, so freaked out about speaking French in a professional context that I got all flustered and grumpy with my colleague in front of the group. None of the participants cared about my French; they were all engaged in the cool demonstration! As a French friend once told me, “Sam, tu mets le bar trop haut!” Translated, “You set the bar too high!”

Meanwhile, that old caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland? He gets it. He is at home with his own continual internal changes.


How about you? Do you know your patterns? Do you know what triggers you when coaching particular sorts of people? Do you diminish your quality when you lose your footing?

-Sam Magill, Sr., MCC


Join us at this month’s podinar to explore who we are in how we coach!

Editor’s note: We’re so glad to share Sam’s insights with you through this guest blog post. Join Sam and me (Alison) for our upcoming podinar, where we’ll explore the topic of Who you are is how you coach! We’ll dive deeper into the topic and you can ask your own questions. We’d love for you to register and join us live, or register to receive the recording afterward. LIVE Wed. March 28, 2018, 10:30-12:00 PT / 1:30-3:00 ET.



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Posted in: Learning in Action

Want a Better Life? Try Changing Your Focus.

March 1, 2018

My father passed away recently. My thoughts are saturated with him. 
There are many words I’d use to describe my dad, but the word optimistic stands out the most. 

A few years ago, I asked my dad what it was that made him so optimistic. He replied simply, “I’ve never failed!” Hmmm….

Can you imagine?! Living for nearly 86 years and believing you’ve never failed?! (To be clear, my dad, a humble man, wasn’t boasting, just explaining.)

As I’ve reflected upon my dad, I’ve wondered about the mindset that resulted in his believing he’d never failed. (Most days, I feel like I’ve failed at least once before breakfast. I didn’t inherit his optimism.)

I’ve determined that the key to his optimism was in his perspective and what he chose to focus on.

Optimism (Like Failure) is a Matter of Perspective

Clearly, my dad’s belief that he’d never failed was a product of his perspective. Most people living his same life would likely frame it differently. They might say they’d failed many times, in smaller and bigger ways, learned from those failures, and applied what they’d learned.

While my dad did accomplish a great many things in his life (mainly in the business arena – many said he had a Midas touch), he definitely lived a very human and imperfect life. He wasn’t a good student (he played too much), he made decisions (or didn’t make decisions) that he would have made differently in hindsight, and not everything he pursued came to fruition.

What you and I might call failures didn’t seem to stick with him. They didn’t matter or were irrelevant to him. He focused so little on what didn’t work out that his ‘failures’ were consigned to oblivion.

It’s About Focus

What was it about my dad that created such an optimistic perspective? My dad focused on the positive. I know, yawner, right? How many times have you heard, “Focus on the positive!”?

Throughout my life, I’ve heard it dozens, if not hundreds of times, though never from my father. He simply did it.

Our own data from the EQ Profile, an instrument that reveals one’s level of positivity under stress– reveals that people who focus on the positive, experience fewer distressing feelings. Something about focusing on the positive makes the rest of our experience better, lighter.

So, I’ve decided to attempt to reverse engineer exactly what it was that my dad focused on that allowed him to be so optimistic. I’ve written this blog post as if he’s teaching me how to shape my focus to become more optimistic.
My hope is that if you have clients who could use a bit more optimism, this post might be a resource for them.

Work in the Sweet Spot 

Find the intersection of what you are good at, what you love to do and what makes a difference. And DO THAT!

When you spend time in that sweet spot, you’ll find that you are having fun, that you are in the flow, that you feel joy and gratification. Over time, you’ll enjoy the experience of mastery, which is its own reward.

My dad went to work, most days, up until a week or so before he died at age 87. Work was his medicine. Work never felt like work to him. It’s what he chose and loved to do. He experienced mastery.

Focus on the Pluses

Focus on what’s working, what’s good, what’s positive. Any given day is full of pluses and minuses. Focus on the pluses. Doing or experiencing more of the pluses will get you further than trying to focus on and fix the minuses.

My dad’s doctor recommended hospice to our family more than two and half years before he died. When my dad was ill and began to feel an ounce better, he focused on that. And that ounce got bigger and bigger until he WAS better. He did this throughout his life, focusing on what was good, on what was working.

Set Realistic Goals

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) sounds good, sure. But most of the time, for most people, setting realistic goals works better. Setting a series of realistic goals that result in a string of small wins usually produces better results than swinging for the fences. Once you have a string of wins behind you, and you know what you can confidently produce, then you can aim higher. 

It’s easy to look at my dad’s accomplishments and imagine that he set one BHAG after another. I know that he didn’t. Whatever he did, he started small, planned and analyzed thoroughly, worked smart and hard. And that created small successes that led to bigger ones.

Focus on Your Successes

Focus on what you’ve done that’s worked. Focus on what you’ve done that you’re proud of. We spend way too much time ruminating on what we didn’t do or what didn’t work. That only makes us miserable. The book, Hardwiring Happiness, provides the neuroscientific evidence that proves this point. By focusing on our successes, our pleasures, our pluses, we can live a happier, more content, more fulfilled life.

My dad loved his life. Even at the end, when he was practically blind, quite deaf without his hearing aids, and needed a walker to get around, he focused on what he still could do, and he got joy from that.

Focus on the Good in Others

Look for and see the best in others. When you look for, see and acknowledge the good in others, they feel seen and appreciated. And they do more of what you noticed. And they enjoy being with you.

At the end of his life, my dad had a company with three full time employees who had worked for him for a decade or more. They were more like family than employees. They loved working for my dad, and enjoyed the time they spent at work.

Never Stop Hoping

We can always hope. No matter how dark things are, no matter how difficult life can be, we can always hope things will get better. Studies show that hope isn’t simply a dream or a passing belief. It’s a dynamic cognitive motivational system that is conducive to growth and improvement.

My dad never stopped hoping that even the most intractable challenges in his life would get better.

Focus is a Choice

I recently started reading a book called Happiness is a Choice, after hearing the author interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The idea that happiness is a choice kind of ticked me off. 

Choice assumes control. And I don’t believe I can control my thoughts. And I don’t believe I can control my emotions. So how is it that happiness can be a choice?

I’ve come to learn, from studying my dad and from reading the books mentioned herein, that when we focus on the good in ourselves, in others and in our lives, we are happier, more joyful, more content. And focus is a choice. 

While I may not be able to control my thoughts or my emotions, I can control my focus. And I will.

I will aim to place my focus on the good in myself, the people in my life and the events of my life, to honor my dad, and to become more optimistic.

How do you focus on opportunities and positivity? 
Is it a struggle? Or something you’ve made great progress on? 

– Alison


Alison Whitmire
President | Learning In Action


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Posted in: Learning in Action

The Power of Acknowledgment (Part 2)

February 23, 2018

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.

Part of what’s made acknowledging someone difficult for me in the past 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, and 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 that I want more of. 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.

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 you changing you 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, and 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 presenting 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 that your peer is demonstrating.”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 they are being that 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.


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