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The Power of Acknowledgement

By Loren Ekroth

A powerful and largely under-rated conversation skill is that of acknowledging others when they communicate with us. Because it is usually a reaction to another's offering and not a spontaneously initiated comment, this conversation move may seem relatively trivial.

But it's not. It's critically important.

Over a half-century ago the great psychologist Carl Rogers taught his graduate students the technique that became known as "active listening," the method of reflecting back to the client the essence of what she had said.

The type of psychology Rogers espoused became known as "client-centered therapy," largely a matter of careful, empathic listening to people and validating them by accurately reflecting their comments. This technique is but one kind of acknowledgement.

What Is meant by acknowledgement?

Princeton University's online dictionary contains various meanings of "to acknowledge." This is the principal meaning I intend for the conversation skill:

To express recognition of the presence or existence of, or acquaintance with; "He never acknowledges his colleagues when they run into him in the hallway"; "She acknowledged his compliment with a smile"; "It is important to acknowledge the work of others in your preface."

In the broadest sense of this meaning, it includes to take notice of, to "grant being to another", to validate another's existence, behavior, and comments.

Sometimes this is done with simple eye contact or a nod; or perhaps with an "uh-huh." Sometimes it is done with a careful verbal response, a summary or paraphrase of what a listener heard. In situations like Native American council, acknowledgement needs to be shown only by showing rapt attention when listening to the comments of other speakers.

Behaviors are reciprocated

One of the powerful results of acknowledging others is that doing so tends to evoke similar behavior. In short, "You're paying close attention to me? OK, I'll also pay close attention to you."

Many marriage counselors and some mediators require that the contending parties repeat what they hear before responding with their own comments. Why? Because the parties in dispute typically are not listening carefully but are merely reacting to their distorted interpretations of what was said.

Examples of acknowledgement

A few everyday examples to make acknowledgement even clearer:

Billy (14) receives a nice birthday gift from his Aunt Sally, one carefully selected for his interests. Billy does not send a thank you note to Aunt Sally, who had spent much time and money to please Billy. Her feelings are hurt, and she wonders how her sister has raised Billy. The following year she sends him a plain birthday card.

Ten committee members are meeting for the first time, and the convener suggests they all introduce themselves by name, organization, and background. Going clockwise, they begin, with Abe telling everyone he is from First Security Bank. However, the other nine members pay little attention because they are thinking of what they're going to say during their turn. After 15 minutes, very few can remember anyone's name or background.

Conversations may not be oral

Sometimes oral conversations are continued with postal or email correspondence, and I observe that many of these messages go unacknowledged.

For example, Susan and James are talking after his presentation, and she asks him to send he a report he cited. He agrees and, when returning to his office, digs out and copies the report, encloses it with a note, and mails it off to Susan.

However, he receives no response of any kind that she'd received his report, which was actually a continuation of their conversation.

(Perhaps that is why anthropologist Gregory Bateson once remarked to me that "you can send an angry response to a promised letter you never received." The communication loop had not been completed.)

Confirming receipt of an asked-for response is even more important when you continue the conversation electronically. Did your message accidentally get deleted? Was it filtered? Or has it been simply overlooked? Who knows? In any case, because it was solicited and not spam, it deserves an acknowledgement. Until this occurs, the communication feels incomplete.

Pay-offs for acknowledging others

When you install acknowledgement as a reliable move in your conversation repertoire, your communication will benefit in many ways: You"ll have better relations with others, more communication accuracy, and more prosperity, as well.

And, on your next birthday, unlike Billy, you'll probably get a nice gift instead of an ordinary card.

Loren Ekroth 2005

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact him at Loren@conversation-matters.com. Check resources and archived articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com.

Some Related Articles:

Win the 'Yeah, But' Game in 5 Easy Steps
Overcoming Conversational Power Plays
Engaged Listening and Enquiry
Can You Mumble More Clearly Please?
How to Listen for Success
Why Aren't You Talking to Me?
How to Avoid Falling Asleep Behind the Conversational Wheel
Bringing Out the Best in People During Conversations
Six Common Mistakes That Spoil Conversations
Top Five Conversation Stoppers

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