The Art of Tactful Candor

We all know someone who can make us feel appreciated. As a humanist, I aspire to be that kind of person—in part for my own sake. People are more cooperative when they feel appreciated, and tasks are accomplished more quickly. It also makes me feel good. So I try to express appreciation whenever I can.

Sometimes, I can be a bit pushy about it. For example, when I’m getting a kick out of my neighbor’s scarlet rubber boots on a rainy day as we descend in the elevator, I’ll say so, even if she looks rushed and isn’t making eye contact with me.

Although people love appreciation, their initial reaction is often resistance. Any kind of feedback can trigger distrust in a less-than-humane society, so you need to choose your words and moment.

I use reason and information as my guide to a better life. I want to know what others appreciate about me, and I also believe that telling others the truth will improve my relationships with them. But, as you may have guessed, I’ve gotten into trouble that way and at times have thought I need to keep my mouth shut more often. Whether I could be wrong or violating a boundary, I always come back to the job of fine-tuning the art of tactful candor.

For instance, it might embarrass my neighbor if I said, “We’ve been riding this elevator together for the last fifteen years and it makes me happy that you’re still wearing those scarlet boots.”

I’m not supposed to refer to aging. I’m also not supposed to admit that my well-being is affected by hers. I’m not even supposed to be observing her so closely, though of course, I can’t help it.  We are a social species, lacking big teeth or claws, and for millions of years, our survival has depended on relationships. We’re wired to observe each other and empathize. So when I had a neighbor who was succumbing to alcoholism and visibly deteriorating, it was hard on me every time I saw her, and, I’m sure, hard on everyone in the building.

I, for one, had no idea what to say to her. It might have been easier if we had a richer history of appreciating each other. As a society, we tend to worry more about how we convey criticism. But expressing criticism—whether directly to a spouse, for example, or in a public setting about a public issue— is much easier for others to hear when the ratio of appreciation to criticism is high. The larger goal is to open up avenues for feedback.

I believe that it should be part of the humanist agenda to increase our capacity to give and receive appreciation, and so I propose that humanist organizations end meetings of small groups with something called an “appreciation circle.”

Here’s one way to run the circle: the leader asks everybody to “appreciate” the person to his or her left. One person speaks at a time while the others listen. The leader might offer guidance like, “Feel free to be as specific as you like, commenting on something you noticed during a certain activity, on this day, or in the last few months.”

When your turn comes to appreciate the person on your left you might say how the trait you noticed was helpful to you. For example, Marcia turns to Carol and says, “You have such a sharp sense of humor. It always wakes me up when I’m getting tired during the discussion. Thank you.”

Carol might nod or say “thank you” with the understanding that the activity is supposed to move on. She can bask in feeling appreciated while Marcia turns in the other direction, to Joshua on her right. Joshua might say, “Marcia, I was really touched that you remembered that my daughter was having some issues and asked me about it. You really care about other people and it shows.”

Appreciations that have nothing to do with the needs of the person acknowledging can be very welcome too—some think they are ideal.

Why appreciate the person on your left and receive it from the right? In most social situations we feel obligated to reciprocate; this way, Carol isn’t on the spot to “match” Marcia’s statement. She can take it in on her own time. But because we are used to reciprocation, Marcia might feel a need for appreciation after making herself vulnerable. She can turn to Josh and isn’t left hanging.

I’ve been in groups that added other elements. The leader might also ask each person to “appreciate” the activity, weekend, or evening the group has participated in, or “appreciate” the group as a whole, or “appreciate” the leadership. You might also add “one thing you’ll do as a result of this workshop.”

If you’re cringing as you read this, your reaction isn’t unusual. I don’t like false intimacy either. People who do this well are authentic. Humanists, who tend to be critical thinkers and also highly verbal, are likely to be sincere and specific. Most of us will know that “You’re awesome!” is not as effective as “I’ve noticed that you are always on time and I see that as part of your commitment to courtesy. You’ve motivated me to be more punctual, too.”

My Humanist Institute group, which meets for several days at a time, has tried an appreciation circle on two occasions. Lori Lipman Brown, one of our two mentors, found the circle especially helpful after sessions when there had been tension. While the idea at first made my classmate Dan Blinn anxious, he now likes the circle. “When I saw it in practice, my fears went away,” he says. “I thought it played a strong part in strengthening our group’s bonds.” He still feels uncomfortable when he’s on the receiving end, “but I remind myself that it isn’t just about me; it is about the person expressing the appreciation and about the group.”

The exercise gives people the opportunity to voice one-on-one connections they already feel. Sometimes I’ve faced a person who I think doesn’t like me much, and have been surprised by his warmth. I’ve also spent the day simmering with irritation at a class member and then found myself easily appreciating her, once I was called upon to do so. The whole group benefits when we see happy exchanges between people who have displayed tension. The group also benefits from hearing those details; I may have remembered that Joshua’s daughter was struggling but thought Joshua would rather I didn’t bring it up. Now he’s made it clear that I can. Expressing appreciation isn’t always easy. You need to go a step beyond the obvious. I say what comes into my mind spontaneously while I focus on the goal of being truthful and loving. Isn’t this the essence of humanism, to take the time to notice the good in each other and support our mutual flourishing?