Scientific Lessons in Gratitude

9th March, 2016

As many of you know, I designed and ran some independent / academic research, I am currently wading through some beautiful data in collaboration with some pretty clever people.  Within this work one particular challenge I embraced was to find 90 willing participants to give up their time to come to Plymouth to be (for want of a better term)… “human lab rats”. Not a small ask when you consider adding to a study which itself takes 35 minutes… some travel and parking time and expense and some diary juggling. Significant inconveniences for many with no incentive other than a knowledge and a warm feeling that they were helping with some scientific research that had a link to health, wellbeing and the environment (topics close to many of our hearts).

So how did I approach this undertaking…


In addition to this pilot study being something greatly important to me personally and linked to a larger goal, impetus to hit my participant target certainly received some fuel. Hearing and reading phrases such as…

“You will never get that number of people in the timescale you are looking at, it just doesn’t happen that way, it always takes longer to recruit for academic research than you think, it is just the way it is”

… Was enough to prompt some fire in my belly. As an NLP Trainer the words spoke of a lack of creativity and non-fluidity. I reflected upon them…

  • There is usually a way around challenges… right?
  • “Impossible” to find 90 kind hearted compassionate people in a place as large as Plymouth and the surrounding areas? Surely not.
  • Always… it is always that way? Is it? Are you sure? How do you know? And does it have to be that way?

I have a pretty well developed case of the mismatcher within me that likes to challenge “impossibles” – in NLP terms we call this language pattern a “modal operator of (im) possibility” which if left unchallenged can negate even attempting to achieve goals. As for fixed thinking… many of us have come across the “chimps in the cage” analogy (if not find it here, I wrote an old blog post about it… HERE)

Activist Approach

So how to find 90 people to help… I decided to target the business community for a number of reasons….

Partly because we are a group of doers… thinkers too… in that we are solvers of problems who tend to roll up our sleeves and deliver what we say we will. I love the business community for precisely this – we tend to look at how things can be done, finding solutions rather than placing our emphasis upon limitations. Of course we critically appraise and take pragmatic action, but our intentions – much like the academic community – are progressive.

Additionally my experience running a business in the South West for the past 7 years has taught me that we are, at the core supportive and collaborative networkers for shared positive outcomes. You only have to look at social media streams such as Twitter’s #DevonHour and #CornwallHour or the numerous Business Networking pages on Facebook and Linked In to see this (and as it happens many pivotal supporters of this project came from these sources.)

Connection (Six Degrees)

People know people… it is obvious… and if the people you know are generous in their desire to help others, it is likely that the people they know and choose to acquaint themselves with will be like-minded… it stands to reason – we are social creatures and like attracts like.

It is suggested that six degrees of separation has now become nearer to three according to Facebook’s latest research…

Facebook’s Three and Half Degrees

…. and so your pool of potential support is far deeper and wider than you think. Be bold, dive in and ask for help.

Expressing Gratitude

When people have supported make sure they know that they made a difference… and possibly share with them why and how their input helped.

Whilst carrying out this project I received feedback that I thank people too much… This was really interesting to me and so I asked for clarity.

Did the frequency and approach to my expressing gratitude in some way undermine its perceived sincerity or perhaps even appear obsequious, I asked?

Happily I was told no…. and it was understood that my thanks were clearly genuine, status neutral, and heart felt.

So… what, I wondered (asked and explored), was the driver for the feedback:

It seems my thanks were considered disproportionate to the perceived help offered… leaving the recipient feeling uncomfortably over-recognized for what they considered a small act… their belief also being that to say thank you once was enough.

Perception and Scaling

Being open to feedback I wanted to acknowledge and respond – since the last thing I would like is for somebody to feel uncomfortable as a result of my actions…

Could I reduce my thanks frequency and amplitude I pondered…?

Tricky since I have a deep sense that often we might not show enough gratitude – so whilst I played with this, it wasn’t really an option for me.

Humour and banter helped… in that I now make a joke with this individual each time I catch myself saying thanks – deliberately applying my tendency for superlative (a core part of my communication style) to create lunacy as I describe how the “epic and legendary acts of awesomeness that have been bestowed leave me stoked to the core”… happily our rapport is developed enough that this is a shared and reciprocated joke rather than becoming facetious.

Even this cartooning and silliness though… could, at times… detract from the intention behind my thanks… so where is the potential learning?

I think for this individual the solution could lie with specificity… and this might be relevant insight for anybody reading this who might believe they have a similar skew towards chunking up.

mBraining it!

To ensure alignment in my approach I consulted my heart, head and gut for some wisdom. In order to remain authentic to myself (at a gut level), I concluded that my internal appreciation dial has to remain high.

It is always a great reminder to consider different perspectives and reviewing interactions form different perceptual positions is something I regularly assist coaching clients with. Applying this NLP approach to the feedback I gained, it is evident that what seemed a small act of assistance from their stance had much greater impact from my angle.

There are many options in how I express thanks. I am working on changing things certainly with those who might like a little less overt gratitude… or those who find it less easy to accept appreciation.

When I offer feedback (a developed skill) I am very clear about what precisely worked well and less well… so I am incorporating an element of this to my expressions of thanks.

Being clear about precisely what I am grateful for and how exactly this action has helped could enable the gratitude to become more easily digestible, closer aligning it to positive feedback enabling the recipient to see how their role specifically has added value…

Dialling the emotion back could also help. When expressing thanks for things that are truly and deeply important to us it can be natural to come from the heart. Even if I personally know “the why” in relation to my thanks… verbally marking this out might appear more rational and critically appraised and enable the thanks to be received as a logical and appropriate response to an interaction.

We are not robots… so the creative wisdom I seek in my head can find a way of sharing a heart-led feeling of thanks in a manner that retains the soul behind it. I am happy to experiment and naturally I know each person is different in their needs, so this is all great learning.

The Flipside

There are of course two sides to every story and generally opportunity for all parties to learn… So my request to you if you tend to attempt to keep emotion out of business and science is this…

If you find yourself on the receiving end of thanks, please consider that the person offering it is likely to mean it….

Responses like “It was really nothing” can disregard the thanks offered… since it clearly wasn’t nothing to them.

Finally on the topic of gratitude…

Be who you are… There is great learning for me to put into practice and at the same time when it comes to having an appreciative approach…I would rather receive feedback for over appreciating than under appreciating… after all – science shows gratitude is good for your health – there is a great blog post HERE shared by Huffington Post.

Four Points of Summary

1) Thanks

A huge thanks (yes indeed I will make no apologies… HUUUUGE) to those who supported this study so far in any way at all, be it coming along to participate or influencing others to get involved.

2) Possibility

I would ask that the next time somebody tells you it cannot be done… you recognise that (even with your best interests at heart) one of two things are possibly happening…

  • They mean that they believe that they cannot do it… and guess what – they are not you…
  • They believe you cannot do it… and again guess what – that is their confusion not yours…

If YOU believe it can’t be done – you are probably right… If you believe it could be possible you are on to a good starting point…  So remember to focus more on solutions than limitations –

3) Connection

You are not isolated in your problem solving… there are others around who can help with offering a kind word of encouragement, some coaching, maybe sharing of expertise and even time…

4) Tenacity

Ask Yourself:

  • Do I truly want this?
  • How will we creatively achieve this?
  • Take a deep breath and start taking action!

I hope you found this blog interesting / useful… please feel free to comment and share it.

About Lizzi Larbalestier

Professional Blue Health Coach, mBIT and NLP trainer specialising in coastal coaching. Creating meaningful conversations, facilitating action and change for the results that you deserve. #bluehealthcoach #oceanempathy #bluemind