When I was about 12 a friend of my sister came on holiday with my family. We were quite a typical family of three irritable siblings – when someone started singing or playing an instrument another child was guaranteed to tell them to “Shut up, that sounds horrible”. We were continually fighting over whatever shifting thing was deemed to be the desirable whatever – sitting in the middle, sitting by the window, going first, going last. My sister’s friend who joined us was an only child and I was stunned to find that she only ever said nice things – to everyone.
My favourite statistic at the moment is that healthy, happy, resilient workplaces, teams, friendships and relationships have a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative statements. For every criticism, put-down, negative remark, there are at least 3 positive complements, appreciations, supportive statements. Five to one is a better ratio. Happy couples in normal conversations have a ratio around 20:1 – the conversation is a steady stream of interest, positive response, support and appreciation. Having more positives means not only more happiness generally, but also that when negatives come along people can hear and respond to them more, because they’re not defending against what feels like a bombardment of complaint.
Why do we need such a high ratio? Brain scientists have found that our brains are wired to be like Velcro to criticism – it goes in really quickly, and sticks – but like Teflon to praise – it slips past and is slow to go in.
If you imagine that belonging to your social group was the absolute determinant of survival for early humans, over millennia of evolution, responding to criticism quickly in order to avoid negative or shaming social signals was absolutely vital. It makes me imagine that we also evolved to give each other a lot of positive reinforcement – so receiving affirmation for what we’re doing feels like a normal state to be in.
I personally believe that when we don’t have this ongoing positive feedback we feel a sense of lack – and if we’re really short of affirmation it can create the kind of inner emptiness that our consumer society just loves us to feel so we will attempt to fill up that craving with food or shopping or some other marketable product or experience.
So creating a culture of appreciation is a radical, political and profound choice. Seeing and appreciating what each member of a team is contributing is like a kind of sweet honey that people will keep coming back for. If you have meetings which are all about actions, doing, agenda, what we could improve, and have a low positive statement ratio people are likely to leave feeling alone and exhausted. Meetings with lots of shared appreciation, as well as celebrating what has been achieved together, usually mean people leave feeling more energised than when they started.
How to create a culture of appreciation and celebration?
If you think this is something that would be good for your group you could put it down as an agenda item and have a group discussion about what your group tone is like now and whether it could be warmer. See if your group will agree to try out some of the ideas below – or come up with your own suggestions for how to keep up the ratio of celebrations and appreciations.
Know that shifting the group culture is likely to feel uncomfortable. Some people may really find this difficult – maybe those who have a strong inner critic and are used to a constant stream of mental put-downs. Some use criticism as a way to feel powerful, or better than others, to feel in control. Some may feel that it’s “unprofessional” to be something other than critical – I believe especially here in the UKbeing critical can gain you a lot of status. And sometimes it’s just a habit which individuals and groups fall into. Know that the research shows it’s destructive and unhealthy – of all kinds of relationships – in the long term.
Some things we’ve done within Transition Network meetings:
- Start a meeting with a round of appreciations. The busier you are the more you need this. We do this often at morning meetings at our big conferences – where everyone has been working flat out and there’s lots to get through. It takes a few minutes, and gives everyone a boost as they see their hardworking contribution recognised. They might be general or specific to one person.
- Start a meeting with a go-round of “something you’re grateful for, or enjoying about life at the moment” – which puts us in a mood to notice positive things as we begin.
- If the meeting energy is flagging have an “appreciations go round”, or even an “appreciations mingle”
- Appoint a “vibes watcher” or “keeper of the heart” in any kind of meeting to keep an eye on the feeling state of the group (we’ve adopted this after seeing it working at a National Hubs meeting). Part of their job is to notice opportunities to celebrate from the very simple “we’ve made a decision!” to the more significant “we ran a wonderful event and had great publicity and got 30 new names on the mailing list”.
- End your meetings with a reflection on how the meeting went, starting with what you enjoyed about the meeting, and adding anything to improve for next time. It only need take 5 -10 minutes
This blog post has focused on including a generous amount of appreciation and celebration in your group conversation, as part of the July 2014 theme of Celebations. A group that is working well will probably spend time on many different things over the course of a few meetings, including
- Tasks – getting stuff done, in line with the groups purpose or mission statement.
- Social time – just hanging out together, getting to know each other as people.
- Improving how the group works – making sure there’s clarity about the group’s purpose or mission, how agendas are put together, decisions are made, recorded and followed up, who has what formal roles, how new people are welcomed and brought up to speed, and so on
- Deepening trust and understanding – I think of this as the glue that holds a group together, especially when you hit areas of conflict. What things stress you out? What helps when you’re stressed? What are your strengths? What do you want to learn or practice?
Jean Paul Sartres famously said “Hell is – other people!” – and groups of people can be really challenging. But being part of a successful, connected, likeable, courageous, generous group who share a deep sense of purpose and are doing meaningful things together is also one of the most wonderful, strengthening experiences we can have. Of all the technologies we need for Transition I suspect that the skills needed for getting groups to work well is the most challenging – and the most essential. Worth investing in!!