Back in 2020, I started to work on breaking the habit of positively praising, judging, or concluding about an experience or story shared with me.
I’ve been consciously replacing my default responses of:
- “Great job”
- “That was awesome”
- “That was lovely”
- “Thank you for sharing [insert whatever experience/story/practice etc], I’m grateful to experience this with you.”
Then I share from the heart without judgement, usually starting the sentence with:
- “I’m touched/moved by…”
- “I’m feeling…”
- “What you shared takes me to an experience of my own where…”
- “I’m curious, what inspired you to do/share X?”
At first, I messed this up all the time. Slowly but surely, though, it is becoming my new default.
I’m making this effort, in part, because I want to foster more depth and connection in my life.
When we give praise, we are making a judgement or drawing a conclusion about something. Interculturally – and even at a human dignity level – this can get really messy.
For example: if someone shares a family tradition with me and I say “that was lovely”, it sounds like a nice thing to say. But this can prove to be tricky in a number of ways.
It may be perceived, even subconsciously, that I feel I have a right to judge the family or cultural activity, and that my opinion of if it’s loveliness matters.
The response can be subtle or it can be very overt; I’ve had conversations in which people smiled initially at my response of “this was lovely”, then later noticed that their body language shifts into tension, as if something was not ok.
Most cultures have been marginalized by another at some point in history, so there is something about this that never feels right for me. As a settler, after experiencing a powwow or Indigenous elder sharing, would I simply say “that was lovely”? Of course not! That could be seen as colonial language.
So why is it ok in everyday life?
When I say “that was awesome” after an experience, I’m setting up a space of judgement and concluding. The next person to speak is more likely to make some kind of positive or negative judgement because, as humans, we naturally “mirror” each other. The moment I say “that’s awesome,” the door opens for someone else to chime in with “that was terrible”, or “well, it wasn’t that awesome”. This easily leads us to start devaluing ourselves or whatever we are sharing.
In the worthiness epidemic and external validation narratives we often find ourselves swimming in, before I do something as simple as compliment you on your appearance (“you look nice today”), there are several questions I should ask myself:
- Who am I to judge whether or not someone looks nice?
- From what cultural context am I saying that they look nice?
- Will they think that they don’t look nice when I don’t compliment them?
As a non-Muslim, would I ever say to a friend “your burka looks nice today”? Of course not. Because first, I’m not part of their culture, and second, I am not in a position to judge what “nice” is.
This creates a polarity of “nice or not nice”, “good or bad”, and the like.
If you’ve been told that you look nice on occasion, in those moments, you may have thought to yourself “don’t I look nice all the time?”
In my family context, what narrative am I reinforcing when I say to my nieces or my sister that they look nice? That a man needs to tell them that they look pretty? That they need external validation to feel worthy?
There are some exceptions to this concept, though, if you are from the same cultural context or work culture, but may still be tricky. For example, one could say “I’m noticing how you parted your hair differently today and it frames your face in a different way”.
This could still be potentially risky given the external validation crisis we’re in. Making this judgement invites their own judgement. They may respond with “I think my hair looks awful today”, “my face looks weird”, or “oh, thanks… [insert awkward pause]” and the conversation goes nowhere.
In a work environment, one could say:
“I’m grateful for your support today on this project. Thank you for handling the tech breakout groups so smoothly.”
But one could just as easily say something from the heart, like:
“Thank you for your support on this project today. My heart was warmed and my anxiety calmed when you handled the breakout groups. I’m so grateful you were here with us.”
Which feels more connective?
I’ve made it a new habit, when I’m about to share a positive judgement like “that was good”, to instead ask myself why it was good for me. What moved me? What was the gift of my moved heart? How did I feel through the shared experience?
It has been a difficult journey to shift from judging from the head to sharing from the heart and through story. It’s not what I’ve been conditioned to do, but it feels better, so I continue to change the way I communicate. The deeper connections are worth the effort!