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Creating a life of harmony one choice at a time.

How to Say Thank You Without Notes, Quotes, or Photo Totes

Gratitude without grouchiness. No pens, printers or platitudes required.

hands holding out a rose bud
photo by Janet Calterra via Flickr
Showing Appreciation is like exercising and getting enough sleep: we know it's important for everyone and good for us - but we don't necessarily build it into our daily lives as much as we'd like.

Part of the reason is that Appreciation has become a high art - with hundreds of thank you quotes, letter-writing templates, gifts, and recognition ideas to choose, confuse, and intimidate.

That's why I'm grateful for this simple and brief Appreciation practice we do at our family meals and work meetings - borrowed from Myra Walden of the Institute for Empowering Communication.

What do I love about this particular Appreciation practice?

  • it's quick (no preparation, purchases, writing, or photo-printers required)
  • it's easy (our daughter has been doing it since she was 2.5 yrs old)
  • it's inclusive (it goes around and comes back to you)
  • it's connecting (it lets you know you matter and reminds you that others contribute to your life)
  • it's growth-inducing (it stretches your gratitude muscles - without any soreness!)

We have been doing these Appreciations in our family for over a year and while other appreciation practices we've tried have come and gone, this one has remained and become a favorite.

You know something is working well when the kids ask for it ("Appreciation Time!") and when a few minutes of Appreciations improves our collective mood even on our grumpiest, most uphill, nothing-is-going-right days.

I also use the Appreciations when I facilitate meetings at work - usually at the beginning - and in committees or work groups, usually as a closing ritual. Recently, one of my collegues appreciated my introduction of this practice during an Appreciation round.

How do the Appreciations work?

Everyone present takes turns sharing one specific, observable way in which someone else has made their life better (or contributed to that meeting). Everyone gets one turn and everyone gets appreciated once. If there are two of you - great - less keeping track!

When we do this in our family, we usually go youngest to oldest, as the younger ones seem to benefit from not having to wait as long for their turn - and from having more choice (the later people have less choice as names get taken). Going in the same order every day also contributes to ease and predictability. However, once in a while we do switch it around and go oldest to youngest.

What is a specific, observable appreciation?

It has been our experience that people feel more appreciated when someone notices something specific they did to contribute to another, rather than expressing appreciation using a general description or compliment like "good" "helpful" "trustworthy" or "generous."

Example of specific and observable appreciations:

Instead of "I appreciate how helpful you were today," try:

"I appreciate that you helped me clean up my blocks today."
"I appreciate you covering for me when I went to that meeting this afternoon."

However, if this suggestion is intimidating or will freeze you up before you even start, don't worry about it! The important thing is to jump in and try it. Your meaning will come across if you are sincere - and after doing it for a while, you can play around with different ways of expressing gratitude to see what you prefer.

What if you have more than one appreciation for someone?

We have found that the flow works better and people feel more patient when we go around quickly and do everyone ONCE first, before doing "extras." After one round is done and everyone has been appreciated, people are more open to hearing extras for others in the group. This can be introduced simply by saying "Today I have one more for Molly..."

What if you can think of NOTHING to appreciate?

I admit that on some days (or for some people) it can be hard to come up with ANYTHING to appreciate (this is more likely to happen, of course, if you go last).

The important thing is not to panic or feel embarrassed. Gratitude, like other things, takes practice.

In the meantime, take a deep breath and give yourself a minute by saying "Let me think about how I want to phrase this...". Almost always you can come up with something small but meaningful like the person returning an email in a way that felt prompt to you or (if at home) eating with gusto (I appreciate the way you enjoyed your dad's/my cooking today).

It might be helpful to remember that we are not aiming for the best appreciation of the day award - just wanting to share one small way someone has contributed to your world and hear back one small way you have done the same.

It gets easier over time.

It's true - one of the benefits of the daily Appreciation ritual is that it seems to be strengthening and stretching our gratitude muscles.

As one example, for the first 6 months of us doing this ritual during our family dinners, our 2.5 yr old would do the same exact appreciation every day: "Mommy, thank you for sitting next to me today." I would always try to accept this graciously and someone else would usually add an "extra" appreciation for me at the end of the round.

Then, after about half a year of this, her appreciations began to shift into expressions of gratitude about all kinds of things, from her brother playing with her to getting hugs from dad to the yummy meal on her plate.

It might be that this was simply a matter of her developing and getting older - except, I have also felt that my ease and ability to notice contributions and voice them is improving with practice.

I invite you to try this practice in your home, workplace, or committee and to stick with it for at least a few meetings/meals.

The real effect for us has been additive and gradual, weaving itself into our ways of seeing each other and being together over time.

And that's something worth appreciating!

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Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Psychological Services Center.

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