And God saw that it was good!? Expressing your appreciation in helping conversations?

In a recent post I discussed the giving of compliments to the people who consult us. However is it possible that the praise you express towards your conversation partner might be badly received? Or might it feel wrong to give praise, even if your appreciation might be sincere?

Michael White points out that power is not divided equally in a relationship between a caregiver and the person who consults her. Seen in this context:

  • a show of appreciation may be interpreted as: ‘according to my standards, you have done well’ and ‘I find it legitimate to make such a judgment’, and
  • a caregiver who gives a compliment may be seen as being patronizing.

Question: Can we express the appreciation we feel in a way which steers clear of being patronizing, as well as a kind of: ‘Let’sl happily encourage you to do things according to my own standards’?

Option: Situate your appreciation in your experiences.

What the hell does that mean? Situating your appreciation in your experiences?

The opposite of that would be: ‘Very well done, you!’

  • = Playing God (‘And God saw that it was good’).
  • = I keep the experiences that have brought me to this appreciation out of sight.

So, what does ‘Situating my appreciation in my experiences’ mean? An example:

‘You haven’t smoked a single joint for X months now. I really respect that. I will tell you why: During the past 25 years now, I have spoken with a lot of people who have struggled with substances like alcohol and narcotic-like stuff. These conversations have taught me that it isn’t easy at all to quit such substances, not even for a couple of days or weeks. My own … (relative) had an alcohol problem. As far as I know, he never took the step you have. That’s why I feel respect for what you have done.’

What happens here?

  • Appreciation is expressed, and
  • it is placed within the context of the experiences of life of the professional.

Advantages?

The person who is in the client position can understand where this appreciation comes from. He may understand it (or not). He may accept it (or not). But at least we have firmly departed from the ‘and God saw it was good’ context.

Another example of situated appreciation:

A young woman explained in detail how she managed to have an open conversation with her mum. I tell her that I couldn’t imagine working up the courage to start such a conversation with my parents at her age. Which is why I had such a feeling of Wow!, and it also made me imagine all sorts of other things she might be brave enough to do.

As such, the appreciation is situated in the caregiver’s life experiences, such as memories and fantasies. Similar to the following example:

I think it’s really exciting that you said you’re going to … You know, I once followed a workshop from someone about anxiety therapy. I will never forget that workshop. That guy – Omer van den Bergh – had a bunch of little spiders with him, and he made us practice in relation to our own fears. Now, I’ve got the fantasy that if Omer were sitting here now, in this conversation, he would say: … I have learnt from him … Which is why I think this is so exciting.

 

So this is what I mean with ‘situating your appreciation in your experiences’.  We can express our appreciation without playing god. And this allows our conversation partners to experience a greater level of freedom in how to relate to that expression of appreciation.

You can now also ask your conversation partner how he/she evaluates the act or initiative, and why.

Then the central issue is: the appreciation of the person in the client position, based on what he or she finds precious.

 

Johan van de Putte

P.S. As far as I am concerned, this has nothing to do what-so-ever with ‘(positive) reinforcement’. The word ‘reinforcement’ is usually used in the following context: ‘what can the caregiver do to gain control over the behavior of people?’ I.e.: ‘how can I make sure that the person does more X by praising him when he does X? Regardless of the question what he or she might want of finds important.’

Firstly: you cannot know whether a behaviour is being ‘positively reinforced’ when you praise someone for it. This will have to show from an increase in the frequency in this behaviour.

Secondly: if you praise someone after he has talked about something he has done, are you reinforcing the ‘talking about’ or the action which he is talking about?

Thirdly: I am concerned with conducting conversations that the person experiences as helping. Not to bring his behaviour under my control.

 

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Johan Van de Putte

Johan Van de Putte is a psychologist with 25 years of experience in holding helping conversations. His focus goes out to molding conversations that are identity-friendly, that explore what sparkles in the life and the person of your conversation partner, and that maintain an awareness of the unequal distribution of power in the therapeutic relationship.

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