We don’t seem to be good at it. Often on training courses I invite people to give each other appreciative feedback at the end of paired exercises and as you look around the room you see a great deal of squirming going on! People often comment on how receiving appreciative feedback makes them cringe. They are positively discomforted by others commenting on their capacities, their talents and their abilities. Indeed some add that the discomfort is almost (but maybe not quite) as great when giving complimentary feedback to others. It is ‘embarrassing’ they often say. And it is certainly really tough for many when they are encouraged to discover and to name their own abilities. This aspect of the solution focused approach is clearly no easy option for many, if not most, of us.
How is it that acknowledging what we are really ‘good at’ can be so difficult? Since it appears to be the case across so many cultures it must serve some sort of useful social function. Is it about social cohesion? Is it to do with effective group dynamics? Why is ‘being big-headed’ the typical put down for people who are confident in their own abilities, being ‘too full of yourself’ the description of those who poke their heads above the parapet? Now clearly this ‘denial’, this refusal to recognise our qualities can in some situations serve a useful purpose. If we begin to acknowledge and to recognise our competences, and to allow them to become obvious to others, then others might begin to expect something of us, or indeed we might come to expect something of ourselves. And then we might fail, either in our own eyes or in the eyes of those around us. Better, more self-protective perhaps to allow nothing good to be thought of us – then at least there is no risk of failure! No-one will expect anything.
So what do we do when we are talking with someone who finds it virtually impossible to notice or to put into words anything of value in themselves?
1. Of course the first thing that we will try is to ask other person perspective questions. ‘Who knows you best in a good way?’ When the person answers ‘my sister’ or ‘my best friend’ perhaps, we can ask ‘so what would your sister (or best friend) say that they most appreciate about you if they were sitting here with us today?’ Or ‘what would your sister say that it might have taken for you to keep going in such a tough situation?’ It is interesting how many people will answer through the eyes of someone else, in a way that feels virtually impossible, if the question is asked directly.
2. Another way of inviting people to step outside themselves is to ask ‘If you heard the story of someone surviving the sort of situation that you have survived, coming through in the way that you have, facing all the challenges that you have, what would you think of such a person? What sort of qualities would you assume that such a person had?’ Again many of us seem to find it easier to be generous to others than we find it to be generous in our evaluations of ourselves.
3. And then, for people who are still finding it too tough, too difficult we can invite them fully into the perception and the experience of another. Known as ‘Internalised Other Questioning’ and developed by those therapy giants David Epston and Karl Tomm, this takes a particular form.
‘Sounds like you are good friends with Piero?’
‘Have you known him a while?’
‘Yes 10 years or so.’
‘Is he someone you trust?’
‘Yes he is.’
‘OK I’d like to talk with him – will you be him.’
‘So tell me Piero what do you like about Daniel?’
As we carry on asking questions we repeatedly use the name ‘Piero’ in order to hold the person in position.
What’s interesting again is that when answering with the voice of another, people seem to find it easier to be honest about themselves. When our colleague Chris Iveson was using this very approach his client still responds ‘it’s so difficult to say good things’ and Chris reassures her ‘be her, be her, talk as her and these things don’t have to come from your mouth’. And the client does!
In each of these examples we are inviting people to step outside themselves in a range of different ways and to view themselves, one way or another, as others might view them. When on courses, fascinated by this repeat occurrence, our difficulties in accepting appreciation, in accepting the compliments of others or of recognising our talents I tend to ask groups ‘would you want your children to feel able to recognise their strengths and to feel comfortable doing so?’ Everyone says ‘yes of course’. If that is really true then perhaps we adults have to toughen ourselves up, we will have to learn, as Chris Iveson once said, to take the ‘smooth with the rough’, so that we can model for those younger ones around us that it is truly OK!