When we express gratitude we celebrate how our life has been enriched by other people’s specific actions.

When we express gratitude we reinforce our orientation to that which is life-giving.

One of our universal needs is to contribute to meeting other people’s needs. A universal need is intrinsic – it comes from inside us. To offer others an opportunity to contribute to meeting our needs is a precious gift we can give to others.

When we express gratitude we offer a gift to the giver – the knowledge that they have contributed to our needs being met.

The natural process of gratitude is often undermined by using praise and compliments as rewards intended to manipulate behavior: the child learns to sit quietly in class not because that behavior will contribute to their intrinsic need for learning, but because of the expectation of a gold star next to their name (read Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards). Our domination culture trains us to contribute for extrinsic reasons – reasons that are outside of us: rewards, approval from others, tax deductions, name recognition. The motivation behind praise is often pure appreciation, but the language undermines the intent by enabling a dependency on external approval. When we say “Good job!” we leave the other person dependent on our judgment of what a good job is. When we say to another person “This specific thing that you did helped me relax/play/focus, etc” then we contribute to their knowledge base and their capacity to contribute effectively.

The gratitude learning loop starts with the intention to enrich life, is realized with actions and is confirmed with feedback.

In offering gratitude, include the basic components of NVC honest expression:

  1. what we witnessed the other person do
  2. what needs of ours were met by their action
  3. how we feel as a result
  4. check to see that our expression of gratitude was received

In receiving gratitude, we can continue the celebration by saying to the other “I am glad I was able to share something I was given that is useful to you.” (or silently to yourself: “I am grateful for what I have received that allows me to give.”). If instead, after receiving gratitude feedback,  we say “oh, it’s nothing,” we break the feedback loop and the positive energy that was generated dies out. If we want to be brief, instead of “it’s nothing,” try “joyfully given” or “my pleasure.” And though the choice of words is meaningful, remember that it is not the words but the intent and the connection that matter.

Our need is to contribute to life. Contributing to life is not about ego (‘See what a good person I am!’). Approval and reassurance are strategies to tell us whether we have contributed to life but they are based in someone else judging our behavior (good/bad, smart/stupid, etc). Replace approval and reassurance with empathic connection and honest reaction. Gratitude, or appreciation, is a universal need. Appreciation from a particular person is a strategy. Appreciation is telling other people (or ourselves) how their behavior has contributed to meeting our needs.

Try these practices:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. Make daily entries:
    1. to celebrate what you did
    2. to celebrate what someone else did
    3. to reflect on if and how you expressed gratitude to that person as fully as you would have liked to
    4. to set intentions to express gratitude
  2. before dinner, make it a family practice for all to share something they did and something that was done for them that enriched life

In the words of Mark Twain: “I have been complimented myself a great many times, and they always embarrass me—I always feel that they have not said enough.”

Adapted by Jerry Koch-Gonzalez from Marshall Rosenberg workshops on 11/6/03 & 11/20/04