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.
When one of us started singing she’d say “hey that’s nice”, pick up a guitar and play along. Anything creative, funny, she’d be interested in and complementary about. Somehow in just a week we all got a taste for how peaceful and lovely it was when someone was nice to you, and the habit stuck. We all turned into nice teenagers, who had our fights, but generally were kind and supportive to each other.
I’ve been fascinated by group cultures – from time spent in women’s groups and football teams to psychotherapy groups and workplaces. Most recently within Transition Network, we’ve been paying attention to our culture of celebration and appreciation, and experimenting with ways of warming up our meetings.
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 and learning 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 ration people are likely to leave feeling unconnected 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. 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 – often those who have a strong inner critic and are used to a constant stream of inner criticism (and sometimes outer as well). This kind of criticism may be masking fear or a need to stay 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. 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 (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 the 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 start.
- Appoint a “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 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.
- If the meeting energy is flagging have an “appreciations go round”, or even an “appreciations mingle”