Whether it is about self-improvement or helping somebody else to change, appreciation can be an extremely powerful strategy.
I was having a casual chat with my Dad a few days ago. We talked the usual — Polish politics, his work, my work, what’s for dinner. At some point, he pulled out a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. My reaction was immediate and automatic:
Why do you still keep smoking? When are you finally going to make an effort to quit? Can’t you see it’s destroying you?!
His response put me off guard. Sure, you are right, smoking is hideous — he said. But haven’t I told you that I managed to cut down on the number of cigarettes I smoke in a day? I went from around 20 down to 10. I think that’s something. It would be nice if you could appreciate that.
Then he smiled and added jokingly: Maybe you could write out a poster for me that would say something like: Good job, Dad. Keep it up!
Even though he said it as a joke — I thought that this would probably be way more effective than constantly nagging him to quit.
We are used to fixing things
Living in the culture of omnipresent learning, self-improvement and glorification of success, we are constantly reminded that we are not good enough. We feel we should always be on the lookout of acquiring a new skill, getting rid of unhelpful habits and chasing the next exciting opportunity.
Consequently, seldom are we satisfied with who we already are. We are always looking for ways to change.
This is not inherently bad, of course. While I am a big fan of unconditionally loving yourself for who you are — I do realise the need for change. In the times we live in, things evolve so fast that the ability to adapt to new circumstances is possibly the most important skill of the 21st century.
But the intention to improve yourself is not the same thing as the mindset you adopt while doing it. While self-improvement is the goal — your mindset is the tool to attain it.
So, without further questioning the goal — let’s look at the tool.
The mindset that is widely popularized in the self-improvement culture at the moment is the perspective in which you are not good enough. In other words: you have a lot to improve (hence the term, self-improvement). This implies that you need to focus on what is still missing, what you are lacking, and what you must do in order to become the best version of yourself.
This mindset is conditional. That means that it draws on a premise that you can only be happy/successful/ fulfilled, once you change yourself in a very specific way. For some, it might mean losing fifteen pounds and for others — building self-confidence. For me looking at my Dad, it meant that I wanted to see him not smoke at all — rather than just smoke less.
Because his smoking less was not good enough. And I focused on that — rather than on appreciating that he has already made progress.
Did my mindset actually support the goal I wanted to achieve, i.e. helping him to quit smoking? I don’t think so. I saw myself demotivating my Dad, rather than motivating him.
And so I realised that, in many cases, focusing on appreciation rather than criticism can be a much more productive approach to induce change.
“Catch them while they’re good”
This may sound a bit paradoxical in the beginning. How can appreciating what already is can lead to change? Appreciation, by default, also includes acceptance. And if you accept something as it is — how are you supposed to make it change?
We are used to thinking that if we are not actively striving to change and paying for it with blood, sweat and tears, it means we stagnate. Well… here is what some recognised mindfulness scholars have to say about the relationship between change and acceptance.
“From the mindfulness perspective, acceptance refers to the ability to allow our experience to be just as it is in the present moment — accepting both pleasurable and painful experiences as they arise. Acceptance is not about endorsing bad behaviour. Rather, moment-to-moment acceptance is a prerequisite for behaviour change.” — Christopher K. Germer; Mindfulness: What Is It? What Does It Matter?; in: Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, 2016, p. 7
“Change is the brother of acceptance, but it is the younger brother” — Christensen & Jacobson, 2000, p. 11
“The curious paradox of life is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Rogers, 1961, p. 17
Accepting oneself and their experiences — exactly as they are — is also an important component in many approaches to psychotherapy. Clinicians recognize the need for acceptance as a prerequisite to the desired change.
Appreciation involves acceptance, but it is much more than that. It is even more powerful of a force to create positive change. That’s because, on top of the “neutral” acceptance, you also add the “positive” acknowledgement. You choose to acknowledge that there are already certain things going the way you want them to go.
Applying this approach to personal growth, you cease seeing the latter as some kind of a “procedure” that you have to impose on yourself. Instead, you recognise personal growth as an organic process which happens by itself (even though it can be strengthened with your intention).
It is akin to floating with the river’s current, rather than trying to push against it. This allows you to get much further, with much less effort required.
In his TED talk dr Irvan Joseph, a performance coach and educator, brings it down to the feeling of self-confidence — which unquestionably helps people achieve their goals. The essence of his approach to building confidence in coaching and parenting is captured in one simple sentence: catch them while they’re good. He says:
Imagine how we could change the way we parent our kids. Instead of: “Get that glass off the counter, what’s wrong with you!” — if we catch them while they’re good. “Great job! Great job; thank you, Alice, for taking your glass off the counter.”
It’s so simple, but we forget about it.
According to Dr Joseph, if we want to reinforce certain behaviour, we should praise that behaviour while it is happening. Coming from a sports psychology background, he gives an example of how this worked out in coaching a basketball state team in Kansas.
After one of their games, the players were shown video recordings of the moments in which they made a mistake, lost a goal, or failed in some other way. Together with the coach, they were trying to analyse which specific elements they could improve in order not to lose those points again.
Do you know what happened after this feedback session? Their performance didn’t improve by the tiniest bit.
Then the coach decided to show to the team the moments of the game when they did everything perfectly. The players simply watched the recordings of their most flawless attacks of the match.
The result? Their performance skyrocketed after that.
So is the “catch them while they’re good” slogan the ultimate response to how we should motivate others and ourselves to achieve our goals?
Is appreciation the key to encourage positive change?
Appreciation is an increase in value
Here is the meaning of the word “appreciation” in economics — according to the definition found on Investopedia.
“Appreciation is an increase in the value of an asset over time.”
Interestingly, further down the page, we also read:
“Just because the value of an asset appreciates does not necessarily mean its owner realizes the increase. If the owner revalues the asset at its higher price on his financial statements, this represents a realization of the increase. Similarly, capital gain is a term used to denote the profit achieved by selling an asset that has appreciated in value.”
The owner has to realise the appreciation of her assets in order to take advantage of it. She wouldn’t be able to make a profit if she didn’t notice her assets increased in value. She could own stock worth $1,000,000 — but what would be the use of it if she didn’t know it?
The same goes for each one of us, looking to “make a profit” (i.e. feel happy/successful/ satisfied) out of our lives. In order to take advantage of that profit, we need to learn how to appreciate the value of who we already are. And as we notice the ways in which the desired behaviour and traits are already present in us — that’s when they increase in value.
In the language of coaching and contemporary spirituality:
You make more of what you put your attention to.
This is because, by acknowledging that the change you want is happening, you build the confidence that you can do it. You see yourself already doing it.
Say, your goal is to start getting up at 6 a.m. Last week you managed to do it twice out of seven days. Brilliant! Congratulate yourself on that — rather than focusing on the other five days when you woke up later.
What practical use would there be in focusing on the fact that you failed five times out of seven?
I will say this again: what you put your attention to, grows. If you want to grow your confidence that you can wake up early — choose to see that you succeeded in that already. Don’t put your attention to failure, unless you want to create more of it.
Let’s stop right here. I think we need to take a step back.
So are we saying that criticism and negative feedback are completely redundant? That we should never point out mistakes and make suggestions for improvement? Should we simply ignore all the things that go wrong and proceed as if they never happened?
That can’t possibly be constructive either.
The role of negative feedback
“Negative feedback is important when we’re heading over a cliff to warn us that we’d really better stop doing something horrible or start doing something we’re not doing right away. But even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.
Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity. (…)
Clearly in work and life, both negative and positive feedback have their place and their time. If some inappropriate behavior needs to be stopped, or if someone is failing to do something they should be doing, that’s a good time for negative feedback.” — Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review
Negative feedback — i.e. pointing towards what needs to be improved — is by no means negligible when comes to enhancing performance or reinforcing the desired behaviour. Generally speaking, it is most useful when we are completely off-track: making a misguided effort, or not making any effort at all.
Negative feedback is a necessary ingredient — but, in my opinion, wielding it wisely is much bigger of a skill than giving the positive one. When determining how and when to use negative feedback, I see two big factors that need to be taken into account (and they are certainly not the only ones).
First of all, we need to consider the (1) proportion between positive and negative feedback. Secondly, we should recognize the (2) general orientation of the person in question on the spectrum of progress.
Here is what I mean by that.
(1)According to the authors from Harvard Business Review and the research conducted by M. Losada and E. Heaphy, the ratio between the positive and negative evaluation of performance might be the decisive factor that shapes the quality of this performance. The researchers studied 60 working teams and correlated their work results with the amount of negative and positive feedback exchanged inside those teams. They found that the ratio of “positive: negative” in the highest-performing groups was almost 6:1.
This means that for each negative comment, there were six positive ones (5.6, to be precise).
A very similar conclusion appears in John Gottman’s theory of why some married couples divorce and others don’t. He found that the single biggest determinant of whether the marriage is going to last is the ratio of positive versus negative comments that partners exchange. Gotmann found that the optimal proportion for a relationship to thrive is 5:1 — five positive remarks for each negative one.
It seems that negative feedback can only be constructive when sufficiently counterbalanced by the positive one. Appreciation and acknowledgements are something that we need in a bigger dose, in order to thrive.
(2) Meanwhile, there is the other factor to consider when deciding on giving negative feedback. This factor is the current position of a person on the spectrum of growth.
For example: these researchers found out that the efficiency of positive and negative feedback may depend on whether one identifies themselves as a beginner or an expert in what they are trying to pursue:
“People often start by evaluating commitment and then shift to monitoring progress as they gain experience or expertise in a goal domain. They make this shift because novices feel uncertain about their level of commitment, whereas experts are already committed and wish to monitor their rate of progress. One consequence of this shift is that novices should increase their efforts in response to positive feedback on their successes, and experts should increase their efforts in response to negative feedback on their lack of successes.” — Ayelet Fishbach, Tal Eyal, Stacey R. Finkelstein; How Positive And Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit
According to this study, appreciation and acknowledgement should be more useful in motivating the beginners. The experts, on the other hand, would benefit more from constructive criticism that allows them to improve — since they are already confident of their commitment and (at least some level of) skills.
But… can somebody be an expert in their own personal growth?
Appreciation or fixing problems?
When comes to personal growth and behaviour change, I see everyone as a beginner — just in their own league. That’s because personal growth is not a predictable route which can be followed by taking predefined steps that bring us from A to B.
Additionally, if you want to introduce behaviour change, it implies that the desired behaviour is not yet in place — hence, you are a beginner in that behaviour.
The path of true personal growth is unpredictable and leads to places we couldn’t imagine before we actually arrive there. And that’s why we need to believe in ourselves deeply, in order to move forward.
We need the self-confidence so that we know that whatever comes our way, we can deal with it.
To build this confidence in yourself and others, I encourage you to practice the appreciation first. You can get to point out what’s not working later — and sure, it might be very useful.
But right now: stop for a second and congratulate yourself. Appreciate one loving thing that you did for yourself today. Then go and congratulate your father on cutting down the number of cigarettes. Thank your daughter for tidying her room without a prompt. Acknowledge your friend for always being there for you when you need them.
It’s as simple as it is powerful — yet, we forget about it. So start doing it now. Make room for change by learning to appreciate what already is.
Then, any adjustments will be much easier to make.