Blog Post - A reflection on appreciations or compliments or “because I’m amazing” by Anne Boulton
19 February 2020
A reflection on appreciations or compliments
or “because I’m amazing”
A few years ago when I was still fairly new to solution focused therapy and just starting my training it occurred to me that particular year I would add in a couple of personal messages, compliments or appreciations in my daughter’s advent calendar which was a yearly home-made tradition since she was 4 years old. My thinking at the time was that I would see how “appreciations” would have an impact on her behaviour. I recognise now that in my inexperience and with hindsight I was probably aiming to re enforce “Good” behaviour and therefore had my own agenda and not entirely following the tenants of solution focused practice.
My daughter is adopted and has an attachment disorder and so her behaviour can at times be quite challenging. At the time my thinking was to focus on the positive behaviour rather than the negative. The notes were fairly simple some had little drawings etc, messages such as “you are really good at looking after the cat” or “I like it when you give me a hug in the morning”. Mornings are often full of grumpy grunting and general dissent which can too often easily be the easiest thing to get sucked into focusing on instead of the things which are going well. I had also been looking at Luc Isabert’s happiness questions (reference) and felt that might be a good way for me to focus on the positive. Whilst there was no evident change in her behaviour what I did notice was in the post-Christmas clear up when the finished chocolate wrappers and the nonsense wee gifts had been discarded she had kept the little notes tucked away in a neat pile tucked which made me think that on some level it was meaningful to her. I continued to do this in following years to some extent or other.
In early days compliments, either direct or indirect, were considered to be an important part of solution building. Self-compliments or positive statements the individual makes about themselves, which can be reinforced in a conversation are also seen as part of what Frank Thomas (2016) writes about in a “strategic orientation” from Steve De Shazer around the use of compliments. The idea being that they help people to notice or recognise their strengths and resources as well as any positive changes which may have been happening. Frank Thomas (2016) discusses how now there are alternative views on compliments and “no unanimity on the use or value of complimenting within SFBT”
I run groups in my work as an occupational therapist working in rheumatology. The idea is about looking at an individual’s coping strategies and to help them to be able to manage their condition. I use a solution focused approach and I have a range of tools and exercises for the first week and the following weeks will vary depending upon what the group decide their goals are. I find compliments in the group work situation very helpful and aids in the participants becoming co facilitators. I once had a group of seven women who in the second session were all being very self-depreciating and universally making negative statements about themselves and putting themselves down. I decided to divert from my plan for that session and instead got the strengths cards out and laid them out on a table, knowing that they knew enough about each other from the previous session to be able to identify strengths for each other before moving on to talking about their own strengths and resources.
Fortunately I had a colleague shadowing me who quickly picked up what I was aiming to do and led the way in terms of helping to give excellent examples to them of the strengths that she had observed or heard from the previous session. This way of looking at strengths naturally led to compliments of each other as well as distracting the group from being self-absorbed and more focussed on each other. It had a significant impact on the mood of the group and in the following sessions they were much more sharing and supportive of each other and they have continued to meet up after the group work finished. The session looking at strengths/compliments was one of the things which they all commented upon in their evaluation of the work.
Last year I noticed one of my work colleagues was under quite a bit of stress, understandably as she was juggling a number of work commitments and finishing off her dissertation whilst also looking for a job etc. and so I thought I would send her a message daily which would be my way of letting her know she was appreciated.
When thinking about writing this piece I asked her how she had felt about having the daily messages and she replied:
“The alternative advent I received last year was a wonderful surprise and the comments, observations, reflections and comments made me feel valued and appreciated. As a result of the positive influence this had on my well-being, I decided to complete something similar this year in sending friends and loved ones an image or picture that captured something that reminded me of them on each day of advent. At a time of year which can be difficult for individuals emotionally and financially, spending a small amount of time each day helped me to positively reconnect with those who mean a lot to me.” NH
I love the kind of “pass it on” influence of using a solution focused approach and also the creativity it engenders. Whilst at the time she didn’t really say very much about the daily messages is was only towards the end of advent that I realised it was having an impact and I found out much later that she kept the messages and turned them into a book that she could keep to buoy her up when she was feeling low. At the time about half way through I was unsure about keeping going as she had not responded to any of the messages. Since then I have had a discussion with John Wheeler my tutor/trainer/mentor about how one reacts when people don’t respond to positive affirmations or compliments not necessarily in a therapeutic setting. My personal conclusion was that it doesn’t matter if they respond or not as long as the intention is positive.
This last year as a Christmas Advent I thought I would send a message every day to one of my work colleagues letting them know something that I appreciate or have appreciated in the past about working with them. This was a couple of sentences and one of the things that I learnt was that the messages which were more heartfelt from me and specific in their appreciation were received the best. A couple responded with a short thanks and a number responded very positively with gratitude back for acknowledgement, for example;
“ Hello, mascara warning was required! What a lovely idea and what a lovely message. Thank you.”
“ thanks for your lovely advent e-mail, it meant a lot”
“That’s brought a little tear to my eye… thank you so much for this……. Your kind words are appreciated.”
2 or 3 people didn’t respond at all and actually that’s OK. I didn’t wonder if it had been a waste of time or if it was unwelcome or embarrassing for people. I wondered if I perhaps needed to make more effort to be more specific or perhaps as Thomas and Nelson (2007) refer to as not honouring the individual’s view of themselves. I recognise that my compliments or appreciations now with more experience are more considered and thoughtful and specific to people’s values and beliefs and are better attuned to this when I’m listening well. Frank Thomas (2016) outlines the “not knowing stance” and refers to honouring the clients’ views and not imposing their own.
Following a conversation with John Wheeler I thought it might be helpful to ask a couple of people what they felt about having a message sent some of which are outlined above and one of whom was John himself who replied:
“Hi Anne, as you will see, I kept the email which is a measure of its importance,
When I opened the email it felt like a random act of kindness.
In our therapeutic work there is a to and fro between us and the client, within which there will be some expectation on the part of the client of something coming from us to them. This was different as the message was unexpected, so initially I needed to attune myself to the context in which the message had been sent to me. This was uncharted territory for me so, after enjoying your comments I was then left to decide, what do I do now? As you know I decided to thank you and let you know the feedback was appreciated. And the feedback certainly was appreciated. You identified aspects of me that fit with my values, beliefs and intended ways to go about things, especially modelling SF. The different degrees of resonance suggest to me that the first two were a quality whereas the third was more dynamic. This might correspond with a difference between trait praise and process praise.
Best wishes John”
Christmas can be a challenging time for some and I’m interested the impact of choosing to be kind as an alternative to the commercial expectations around us at that time of year. I found myself reflecting on the use of compliments and I’m also interested in the ongoing discussion about if their use is necessary.
My daughter is now 14 and this last Christmas informed me she didn’t want the traditional “homemade” advent calendar anymore she wanted a “bought” make up advent calendar (the joy of teenagers). So instead I decided to text a message to her every day fully expecting her to not reply to any of them. As expected she didn’t respond except to once say;
“You have been sending me a message every day”, to which I replied “yes I know, and how are you finding that?”
“Its fine” was the not unexpected nonchalant answer.
However on one of the days the message I wrote was “once in a while something amazing comes along and this time of year reminds me that 11 years ago we found out you would be part of our family and that has been a great blessing for us”. In the evening we were having a family conversation and her reply to something was “yes because I’m amazing”. Amazing is not a usual word in her vocabulary and we know the importance of use of language in a solution focussed approach which let me know that it was worth it.
Thomas F (2016) Complimenting in Solution –Focused Brief Therapy. Journal of solution brief therapy. Vol 2 no 1, p1-22