As a force for peace on earth, nothing can beat the power of acknowledgement. A very little bit of it seems to go a long way, which is just as well because we mostly live a parched existence in the Great Critical Desert.
Take for example a recent event in Australian politics. I don’t have much interest in the political arena, and can’t think of a single politician I profoundly admire (at least now that Mandela is on his deathbed). However, I have been troubled by the recent ouster of Julia Gillard from the prime ministership of Australia. Julia is surely no worse that any other political leader of our time, and better than many. But through all of her time as Prime Minister, she’s been hammered by the opposition and beleaguered by her own side of the floor. I’m reminded of my days on the farm, when the chickens would take it into their heads to go after one of their comrades, and peck and chase and peck until the victim succumbed. This phenomenon of course isn’t peculiar to Julia or to Australia. You don’t take her career path unless you are prepared to peck and be pecked with the best of them. But perhaps because Julia was a woman, and one who wasn’t afraid to deviate from the norm, I found I empathised with her. In particular, I was deeply offended by the battering she took in her last few days in office from her parliamentary colleagues, and moved by the dignity with which she downed tools and left.
In the context of acknowledgement, Julia received hers after the coup. She went gracefully, several reporters pronounced. It was noted that she’d always held her head high and had indeed accomplished some tricky pieces of legislation during her reign. She was an inclusive and decent manager, it was said.
But what was missing was appreciation for her when she actually needed it to fuel her day-to-day leadership.
Permit me a moment of pure whimsy. In my imagination, Julia bustles down the echoing halls of Parliament House, occasionally bumping into colleagues who stop her to catch a word.
Someone says, “I really appreciated your honesty during that session.”
Someone else says, “Well done keeping that promise.”
“Hey Julia, that showed some real feistiness.”
“Well done, JG. You handled that with a lot of integrity.”
“That was a fine piece of long-term thinking.”
Tony Abbott himself wanders over, hands in pockets, and says, “Nice work, Julia. Wish you were on my team.”
As Julia enters her office, she glows a bit from the praise. But more than that, she realises that her hard work to keep honest and to look at long-term ramifications has been noticed and appreciated. She thinks, these are qualities I will continue to refine in myself. She feels stronger and more sure-footed as a result of the interactions. She says to her offsider, “I can’t tell you how much fun I’m….”
Okay, okay, enough already. Much as I’m enjoying this fantasy, I’ll stop before I lose all credibility as a practical and realistic social commentator. But can’t you almost taste it? Parliament could become a place where workability is sought out and affirmed. Politicians, with their very human hunger for recognition, experience a metamorphosis – they no longer have to win and hold the upper hand, but rather are indulging a desire for recognition of their good work. Parliament itself becomes less thunder-some, more fun and more productive.
During the course of my time in the Learning and Development world, I came across the discipline of Appreciative Inquiry. Wikipedia says in its summary: “Some researchers believe that excessive focus on dysfunctions can actually cause them to become worse…By contrast, A.I. argues, when all members of an organisation are motivated to understand and value the most favourable features of its culture, it can make rapid improvements.”
Intuition and experience tell me that’s indisputable. Throughout my career, I worked to have team members and students became skilled at acknowledging one another. I found the practice filtered through a business without much obstacle – people quickly catch on that it’s wonderful to be appreciated and somehow gratifying to search out the accomplishments of others. I could watch the emphasis shifting in an organisation from trying to fix what’s wrong to building on what’s right.
In Shedders-land, appreciation is one of the key lubricants for successful co-existence in our little household. It’s a practice we have engaged in forever and are good at. I learn from everyone, but especially Eve, who can find a nugget of gold under any rock. You can’t get away with doing anything worthwhile without Eve’s noticing.
And even though it’s almost a day-to-day habit, every now and then the Shedders sit down for no other purpose than to appreciate one another. We take turns sitting in the glaring spotlight of listening to the things that others have noticed and valued.
After, I feel good, and more importantly, my future behaviour is affected. When I’ve been acknowledged for my tending of the garden, for my finesse with a yoga pose, or for revealing myself in my writing, I am encouraged to continue those behaviours and to work hard at keeping up my game.
And a wonderful side effect is that when I have been “seen” by someone in that way, I can’t help but appreciate them. My relationship with my housemates grows.
It’s not that we’re blind to one another’s shortcomings. I’m well aware of everyone’s warts and wrinkles, just as they are surely aware of mine. But there’s no point in forcing them to each other’s attention, as our comrades in parliament are so ready to do. When I’m reminded of my faults, I feel hurt, I become defensive, I fall into resignation because I can’t fix myself and God knows I’ve tried. But stroke me and I purr like a kitten. I don’t want your false praise – I can smell it a mile away – but if you notice something I’ve worked at and done well with, I become a force for good.
So – Julia, I’m sorry that, being apolitical, I didn’t especially notice the good things you did while you were in office, and hand out some kudos when you needed them. But truly, I think you’ll have a much better chance at carving out a life you love and value once you’re out of the parliamentary bearpit. I’m genuinely happy for you. You’re brave and articulate and intelligent. Now you can use those qualities where they’ll be appreciated.
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This week housemate Daniel participated in an ABC Nightlife (Tony Delroy) forum on the subject of retirement options. Appearing along with Adele Horin and Michael O’Neill, Daniel talks about the Shedders alternative. Check it out here. Daniel shows up around 11:43, though the whole show is worth a listen.