The Power of Acknowledgement

I met Tony Quinlan this afternoon. Tony’s a big believer in the power of storytelling and needless to say this made for a long and very satisfying conversation in which we discovered a number of shared prejudices.

We got on to the topic of Acknowledgement. A big favourite of mine.

I think acknowledging other people’s experience can be remarkably powerful especially in situations of conflict. Yet it’s something we as a race are incredibly bad at doing.

What we like to do is offer our interpretation of what someone tells us, or rush to suggestions on how to avoid having certain feelings, rather than simply acknowledge them.

Time and again, I find that when I stop and simply let someone know I’ve heard what they said, and the way they said it, the quality of conversation improves for both of us. And when others do it to me, the impact is similarly strong.

Of course, marketing folk are particularly anxious to move customers along. God forbid we should truly acknowledge their experience, other than fleetingly and in an effort to sell them something.

Feeling a bit old? Never mind, buy this cream.

Feeling left behind? Never mind, drive this car.

Feeling tired? Never mind drink this beer.

I remember on September 12 2001 I was talking to an old friend who had invited me over for lunch. I actually felt unable to leave the flat, sufferering like many other people from the shock of the day before. And then I just said to him, “Oh, I realise I feel too afraid to go out of the door, just give me a minute or two to feel that.” And after a few moments of acknowledging this fear, I quite rapidly felt quite happy to go on the visit.

Perhaps this all sounds very New Age but I think it’s important.

Tony was in a playful mood so we did a round of “Gestalt Feedback”. This is one of those very simple exercises that might seem trivial but often has a deep impact.

Tony told me a true and story of a somewhat stressful event. At the end, my feedback was guided by the principle: Simply say “I heard you say…” and then repeat some of the exact phrases heard in the telling of the tale. That’s it, no comment, no interpretation and no sympathising.

Sounds a bit daft? Try it and see. The effects are different each time, but in Tony’s case he said he noticed that he felt saw the events of his tale quite differently.. felt better about what had been an unpleasant experience.

Weird and wonderful. And another one for the case files on the power of acknowledgement.

And, true to this spirit, thanks to the team at Spectrum in North London for sharing this (and many other such exercises) with me.

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