Workplace Wisdom

When a Good Thing Triggers a Surprisingly Bad Response

This holiday season I gave a small gift to a local supplier as a token thank you. It was clear from her immediate reaction that she’s not used to receiving client gifts.

She started out by protesting, “Oh you shouldn’t have done that!” Then she turned excessively grateful: “It was so wonderful of you to do this!” But suddenly she shifted into a negative mode about everything that was wrong with people and the way holidays are celebrated today: “No one appreciates anything anymore.” Ironically, that was exactly what I was expressing in both word and deed. “No one knows how to behave anymore. It’s not like it used to be.”

I couldn’t wait to get away. I had wanted to show my appreciation, be a good community member, maybe lift her spirits a bit. But the force of her response felt out of proportion, as if the floodgates had suddenly opened, and every negative thought she’d stored up over time came pouring out. It was as if she never got enough chance to share her concerns, and the slightest opening encouraged her to drop the whole load.

It’s easy to get caught in an awkward dance when it comes to giving and receiving appreciation — and it can become uncomfortable for both sides. Have you been the receiver or the giver in this type of interaction?

Relationship Can Be a Thankless Task

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of trying to recognize team members with praise, small gifts, bonuses, even raises and promotions, but been met with responses that look like crankiness, disappointment, or — even worse — disdain.

Maybe they just didn’t get what you’re trying to do for them, or how much effort you’d made. Whether you’re thinking of a home team or a work team, doesn’t it sometimes seem as if people want even more attention, support, or recognition than we can ever provide?

Or perhaps we’ve been the ingrates. Maybe when others were trying to smooth our path, show support, or help us do better, we’ve criticized them for their lack of skillfulness, rejected their gifts because we were occupied with something else, or taken the opportunity to vent about the last thing that bothered us — all without ever bothering to appreciate what they were trying to do.

Expectations Mismatch

If you don’t want to push people away inadvertently, try experiencing things from their point of view. Why would they be acknowledging your input except to show appreciation? Why would they be giving you a gift except to show that they care for you? Why would they be investing their time unless you and what you do matters to them?

And on the other side of the interaction, if people respond to your gifts or offers with less than enthusiasm, see if you can put yourself in their place: Whether at holiday time or not, are they suffering in some way that you don’t know? Did your good intention remind them of another time in their life that turned out badly? Have they been wishing so much to be understood that you unwittingly set off an avalanche of feelings that wasn’t really meant for you?

Give the Gift of Persevering

Try to focus on being gracious, generous, and open. You can always express gratitude: “Thank you for telling me that/offering that/your kind gesture/this sweet gift/trying to help.” And if you muffed your chance in the moment, you can always go back and convey appreciation, if not in person, then in a note sent via whatever mode is characteristic of your relationship.

You can always assume good intent — and look for what it might be. And you can always hold an optimistic frame of mind.

If you can stave off your own reactivity, and spend just another moment or two in a relaxed frame of mind, your ability to stay open and gracious may help the other person relax too. Over time, you might even create the opportunity to look for a deeper or more lasting relationship — even if it includes hearing some hard or negative things from time to time. In the moment, though, if you’re lucky, perhaps you can create even the slightest feeling of warmth and the briefest twinkle of connection — and then both of you can feel good. And that’s a real gift.

Onward and upward,

LK

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