When I made a decision a few years ago to forge my own business model, I committed to creating partnerships and take on work that truly compelled me. With this, I chose to start working exclusively with people who inspired me to be my best. One mentor of mine calls these types of people ‘Uplevers.’ They help you “UP” the level of your work and impact each day.
“The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.” ~ Unknown
A big part of the work that I do is training leaders, entrepreneurs and individuals on how to become great coaches or integrate coaching into their tool kits. In my experience, one of the most powerful and challenging skills to learn is what we, at the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), call Acknowledgment (CTI is one of my prized partnerships.)
What we mean by the term is to acknowledge a quality, trait or aspect of a person that you see in them. This is different than acknowledging a result or task. Here’s an example:
Acknowledging a result/task: “Dave, you made some great decisions leading that project last month. They helped us stay ahead of schedule, which was important. Nice work.”
Acknowledging the person: “Dave, you are an exceptional decision-maker. A great example was how you executed a number of decisions on that project last month.”
What’s the difference? In the first example, Dave feels good about himself in relation to decisions he made on the project. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s one level of acknowledgement. Here’s the limit. The project is finite and the acknowledgment applies only in this instance. In the second example, exceptional decision-making is a part of who Dave is. It happened to apply on the project. Dave seeing himself as a great decision-maker can inspire confidence, trust, initiative, and more. This may appear subtle and it can be a game-changer in building confidence and higher performance.
For those reading this looking for cost-effective, highly impactful recognition strategies, see above. And for those looking for some structured steps on how to do this, read on.
Makes sense, right? So why is it done so rarely? Part of it is often people don’t know how. We can train these skills. And it’s still hard and we don’t do it. Why? Here’s my take.
To acknowledge someone for who they are is intimate. It creates deep interpersonal connection. And that can get us all tied up in our knickers.
In 2012, one of my siblings was diagnosed with cancer in his early 30’s. You may have a similar story and know the roller coaster ride that goes with it. In preparing for what might lie ahead, I committed to myself that I would no longer wait to let people know when they made a difference in my life. I would seek to acknowledge them powerfully so that they knew of their impact on me.
Given this, I’ve turned my attention to practicing acknowledgement regularly and I’ve been much better at acknowledging clients, colleagues, leaders I’ve trained and more. In the vast majority of circumstances it’s been very well received as people feel more valued and seen. All was going well until a recent hiccup.
I worked with a colleague not long ago whose presence inspired me to raise my game. I wanted to be the very best version of me as we worked together. Exactly who I’m looking for, right? Here’s the catch – I also find her to be a very attractive woman. So when I considered how best to acknowledge her impact, I wanted to acknowledge all of who she is, including her beauty. And voila! Knickers in a knot.
As a happily married man, married to a beautiful woman who has been truly inspiring the best in me (and supporting the worst of me) for more than a decade, giving the acknowledgement I wanted to give felt complicated. Why? Because it would be intimate. Is it right to create intimacy with another woman given these circumstances?
Divorce rates have been rising steadily since the 1980’s. Those born between 1965-1980 (aka Gen X’ers) have experienced a tripling of divorce rates compared to the prior generation. I’ve been involved in several conversations recently of marriages that have dissolved because of cheating, deceit and lies. So, when I thought about giving this colleague my acknowledgement as a married man, I envisioned the impact going sideways. In short, my acknowledgment of her courage, adventurousness, persistence, playfulness, focus, and yes, beauty would collapse into some form of an inappropriate advance or a loss of integrity. My fear of truly seeing her and sharing her impact on me held me hostage.
When we truly acknowledge or “see” someone, it can be very intimate. Living and training it, this kind of acknowledgment is one of the most vulnerable experiences we can have. If you’re guffawing right now, I understand. And I have witnessed too many self-confident, capable leaders squirm, back away or fully bail out when a moment of powerful acknowledgement occurs. To truly see and be seen, with our guard down, can feel immensely risky.
So we reserve intimacy only for our partners/spouses, family members and maybe a few others (E.g. those we’ve known a long time). Given the statistics noted above, somewhat understandable. For a long time, I took intimacy to mean something physical had to happen.
Here’s a new perspective. Intimacy can simply be a powerful emotional experience (for some, even spiritual). It doesn’t require a physical aspect. This is where we collapse it. We make up that an intense moment of connection or even a hug (like an ‘arms fully around, heart-to-heart, keep-your-butt-in’ hug) means more will/should/must happen. We make up that we can’t, don’t or won’t hold our boundaries. Of course you can find evidence for this. And so we shut it ALL down. As a result, we make intimacy a highly exclusive experience. We hold back on sharing these important messages and moments with others.
The truth is, there are many people desperately wanting more intimacy in their lives. Neuroscience has shown that we’re biologically wired for connection. We can’t help but pursue it, as we need connection and intimacy to be healthy, balanced and ultimately, to survive. There are billion-dollar internet and publication industries built on our desire for intimacy. It’s already out there people! We go get it in what I dare call “less real” ways. Or we shut intimacy down. We isolate. Lack of intimacy can create lack of empathy, and isolation changes families, communities, our health and welfare.
“No I won’t back down. I’m gonna stand my ground. ~ Johnny Cash
I undid the knot and I reached out to my colleague and delivered my acknowledgment. I let her know her full impact on me – courage, resilience, adventurousness and, yes, beauty (hey, if someone thought you were beautiful, wouldn’t you want to know?) I shared who I saw her to be in the world, how it had impacted me.
And then I trusted us both to handle the intimacy that would follow.
The impact? The acknowledgement was cleanly received and done so beautifully (with a simple thank you). It wasn’t messy or misinterpreted. I feel more empowered in our relationship. There is more connection and depth, and the truth is, the nature of our work had created intimacy already. I know it will inspire our future work, and there will be no collapsing. We’ll be able to model for the leaders we work with the power of clean intimacy in creating great outcomes. The truth is, when we care for those we work with and dare to name it, we’ll typically go to greater lengths to ensure they succeed . #frommetowe
So here’s the how-to on a powerful acknowledgement:
- You start with either “You are….” Or “You have….” and you name the quality (or qualities) you see (e.g. courage, discipline, grace, power, humility, beauty, etc.)
- You keep it short. Too many words confuse the receiver. “You are an inspiring model of wisdom and courage.” You keep it about them. No “I” statements please. For example, not “I feel that you are…” That’s about you, not them.
- Then you STAY. This includes staying present in your body language with your attention on the person you’re acknowledging and let them receive it. No hedging, justifying or rationalizing. This is where it can feel most vulnerable, and be transformational.
- And finally, you check in with how it has impacted them. “How are you with what I’ve shared?” or “What’s it like to hear that?” This makes sure you’re in it together, and this helps keep it clean.
Odds are, the first couple of times this may feel different, awkward, or even uncomfortable. And if you’re looking for ways to increase a sense of commitment, community, relationship, or collaboration in your work and life, the tool of Acknowledgment is powerful.
So I challenge you. Who is someone who until now you might not have dared to acknowledge because it would feel too intimate? What will it be like if they never know how they have impacted you? What will it be like if you’ve impacted others meaningfully, powerfully or significantly and you never knew the difference you’ve made?