An Appreciative Approach to People

Appreciative thinking is learning to see the value of things, says Seth Roberts. It’s learning to appreciate what’s good in something.

School teaches us to be proactively skeptical and critical. We’re taught to immediately look for the flaws in experiments or theories. An appreciative approach, by contrast, simply asks, “What’s redeeming about this experiment or idea? What’s done right?”

Some VCs are naturally appreciative, others naturally critical. After an entrepreneur pitch their first feedback will either be, “OK, here’s what I like about what you’re doing” versus “Here’s where I think the problems are.”

I am trying to take a more appreciative approach to people. When I meet someone new at a cocktail party, I am trying to ask myself more regularly, “What’s cool / impressive / interesting about this person?” as opposed to dwelling on their imperfections.

Stay positive, in other words.

I already do this most of the time. But I think I can do this more with at least three types of people:

1. People I perceive as less smart than me. It is possible to learn from someone not as smart as me. It is also very possible that the person is smart in ways I am not and I should try to appreciate that.

2. The type of people who preface every answer with “thank you for sharing.” These are the exceedingly empathetic people. The touchy feely people. The Oprah people. People who love talking about their feelings more than their ideas. It’s too easy to dismiss them as lightweights. I would like to be better at appreciating their approach to the world.

3. Self-absorbed people. When I’m stuck in a conversation with a self-absorbed person who does not realize that he is a self-obsessed asshole, in my head I sometimes play the game, “How long can he keep talking and I stay silent?” I focus in on his obliviousness to the social dynamics of the conversation. As a result I miss out on appreciating actual virtues he may be displaying, let alone listening to and comprehending the words coming out of his mouth.

Here’s to ever more appreciativeness!

9 comments on “An Appreciative Approach to People
  • I’m in full agreement with the exception of the self-absorbed people. I don’t have time for that. If you want to be self-absorbed on your own time, that’s fine. Most of us are confident or we wouldn’t be putting ourselves out there via a blog, etc., but I’m not listening to someone tell me there life/business history for 15+ minutes.

    That said, I appreciate the message this post conveys, one worthy of taking to heart and applying.

  • I think this is a great point. What do you think is a good approach to developing these habits? Just focusing on the principle “All people have inherent value, and it’s your responsiblity to uncover it if it’s not readily apparent?” Or are there tactical moves i.e, whenever you find yourself drifting in a conversation, force yourself to ask the person a question that will help clarify their point of view?

  • Number 1 has reaped huge rewards for me. I’d like to think that I’m at a point where I will simply turn off the switch that measures the others’ intelligence, because this way I can get whatever it is they offer unfiltered. It’s important to zoom only on what I can learn or what I can offer the person. I think a person’s ambition trumps their intelligence most of the times, so intelligence is only one filter (and a usually biased one at that). Some of the best life advice I’ve received have come from people or situations far removed from our definition of intelligence. You can read some of Howard Gardner’s work to hammer this point in.

    Number 3 is interesting, because it’s important to distinguish the real reason why the self-obsessed person is annoying to talk to. There could be many reasons. Is it because, in his/her overbearing blabbering, I feel he/she is reducing MY own self-worth? That my self is somehow “diminished” because somehow they are not letting me assert my own right of conversation? That would be the wrong reason to tune out of the conversation, as it would imply that I am as self-absorbed with myself as the speaker, e.g. wanting them to recognize my rights, etc. I can remember shutting down in many a conversation with a self-absorbed person because of this.

    Now it’s at the point where if I know I can learn something from a person like this – even one lesson – I will tolerate their self-absorbement most of the times and let them do all the talking they want. The lesson is far more important and valuable to me than wondering about the ego-trip.

    (In fact, I often have the reverse problem: I’m so amused and entertained that a person like that could exist in this world that I forget to listen to the content!)

  • I think a little of both. The tactical seems more useful. We’ve heard the
    big picture a million times — the key is remembering to deploy it in

  • Thanks for the reminder, Ben (and Seth Roberts). And for your comment, Toli Galanis. No doubt everyone has something valuable to share – even if it’s only “god don’t let me ever be that (fill in the blank).

    It’s important to filter what we put in our heads but there’s a danger in getting too selective and that danger is how it can limit us. Listening only to people we deem as smart or smarter is a form of stupidity. Similar to only hanging out with people we judge to be as attractive or funny or talented or entertaining or whatever. Can lead to myopiodicbetterthanubullshitidess.

  • Agreed. I think the lesson is even more important when it comes to deeper relationships. We all know that “no one is perfect,” but we can’t help be disappointed when people we’re close to and expect a lot from have a flaw or fail us in some way. I argue the best personal relationships only come about when there’s recognition of each other’s flaws and even an embrace of them.

  • Nice post on being open Ben. I’ve been working on this actively for the last two years and have had tons of opportunities come from being able to listen to everyone openly. The way I look at it is that every person I meet, regardless of their intelligence or attitude, beyond what I may learn in the conversation, I’m going to learn a little about myself. If you view a conversation with someone as an opportunity to learn about yourself then you will be very willing to engage in it. Our nature as humans is impermanence and a constant state of change, so every new perspective or person we meet allows us to compare that person and how they are with ourselves and to see through this comparison what we are and are not.
    This is why I love traveling so much. To put it simply, “every person I meet that’s different than me tell me more about who I am not, the more I know who I am not, I understand who I am.”

    Any travelers agree?

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