Acknowledgment: A Powerful Tool for Positive Change

Photo Courtesy of  Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

There is some interesting research on how people experience pain differently that has many useful implications. One comment by Dr. Robert Coghill really caught my attention.

He stated: “There is huge variation in individual difference in pain sensitivity. Different individuals process the same information very differently. There is real frustration when the veracity of your experience is denied…failure to recognize the veracity of a person’s experience can lead to frustration and block processing mechanisms that you might want to use for positive change down the road.” 

Immediately, I thought of examples:

  • My father lived in a nursing home at the end of his life and was in chronic pain. He regularly complained that his caregivers believed he was exaggerating or even fabricating the pain. When he felt someone didn’t believe him, he became less willing to receive help or suggestions from that person.
  • A woman I knew had chronic fatigue syndrome. In her pursuit of effective treatment, she routinely encountered health care workers who gave her the impression that they believed her pain was “all in her head.” This greatly frustrated her and resulted in a revolving door of providers and the adoption of a cynical attitude toward the whole profession.

Whether it’s physical or social pain, people are frequently told, “It’s not that bad,” “Don’t let it bother you,” or “Why don’t you just get over it?”  In addition to being dismissive, it turns out that such a reaction can actually prevent people from finding solutions to their distress.

I don’t actually believe most people are callous and uncaring in the presence of distress. Rather, I believe most people are completely unaware that people experience the same information differently, and so they assume that how they would react to an experience would hold true for all people.  Instead, acknowledging the legitimacy of a person’s perception—to them—can be a critical step toward positive change. In fact, it might be all that’s needed!

How might we acknowledge the legitimacy of people’s perceptions? Drawing from the research, here are some strategies:

1.     First, we need to understand how they make meaning of what they’re experiencing in light of past history, present context and future implications.

2.     This is best done through inquiry, using open-ended questions.

3.     Once we feel we understand how they make meaning, we can paraphrase and clarify in order to communicate understanding and to give them a chance to make any corrections.

4.     Once we truly understand their experience and have successfully communicated that to the person then, and only then, are we in a position to help them explore solutions that might facilitate real change.

5.     Giving advice is generally something to be avoided. Because people like to think for themselves, it’s generally not the best way to encourage constructive processing mechanisms.

As a coach, this process is very familiar to me. It’s pretty much what we do. How great that it’s supported by research!  Yet I can think of many times when I failed to draw upon these strategies when interacting with my father.  When I skipped over acknowledging his experience and jumped right to finding solutions, he often would resist. Instead of realizing that I could have been more skillful, I interpreted his resistance as unwillingness to try.

Where can you try acknowledging another person’s experience as the first step toward positive change?

(I appreciate this is somewhat abstract. If you’re interested in an illustration, here’s a brief coaching dialogue using the strategies above.  Rather than focusing on physical pain, it addresses the social pain of losing a job.)