May 2, 2023

Why Saying “Thank You” isn’t just a Polite Obligation but a Relationship-Deepening Practice.

Saying thank you can be a mixed bag.

Over the years, I have heard parents direct their children to say thank you even when it was quite obvious the young ones were not grateful. In those cases, I wonder what the message is.

Is saying thank you a polite gesture or an obligation?

I have concerns about teaching children (or anyone) to feel obligated to say something that isn’t true. How does this serve them to learn about trusting themselves, about self-confidence and honesty?

Conversely, I do value saying thank you often in an effort to create satisfying and delightful relationships.

It’s all about needs. And in this case, the needs we’re hoping to meet are honesty, contribution, and acknowledgement.

Because humans have evolved as pack animals, we feel calm when we contribute to our group. It helps us with our deep sense of belonging and safety. If our deepest need is to contribute, and we say or do something for the purpose of meeting that need, then one of the only ways we might know that our actions have contributed is to be acknowledged. Not because it is polite to do so but so we can track whether our needs are being met or not.

And receiving a heartfelt thank you is one of the easiest ways to know.

To develop satisfying relationships, this kind of communication is essential. Without it we are left with confusion and often resentment because we think we are doing something for someone else and they are just not grateful. How often have you thought that someone has (or does) take you for granted? Simple solution: receive acknowledgment for the ways you tried to contribute to their life.

And what if the other person doesn’t say thank you? Ask for it!

We tend to shy away from “needing” acknowledgement. Is it because we believe we’re doing things for someone else? Or that we should be generous, altruistic, or selfless? Well, it’s time to change that. Acknowledgment is actually necessary for one’s experience of safety and belonging.

Did you forget so soon that humans only do things to meet needs, and our need for contribution is key for a happy life?

Do you also tell yourself that it doesn’t count if you have to ask? That’s understandable, but it does count. Perhaps the person you are contributing to has also forgotten that it is necessary to acknowledge needs being met. A loving reminder can be helpful.

I call it “going fishing.” My partner Steve and I have a good deal of fun playing this game. It goes something like this:

I pick up something in his home that I gave to him. I show it to him and ask, “Hey, Steve, where did you get this?” He responds with, “I think you gave it to me.” I respond with, “Do you love it?” He says “Yes,” and we laugh and laugh.

There are all kinds of versions of this game. I might say, “Did you like dinner last night?” He will say “Yes.” I will continue with, “I wonder if it contributed to your nourishment?” He will say “Yes,” then thank me while we laugh and laugh.

I also offer the opposite, with Steve and mostly everyone. I will regularly take the opportunity to thank people for things. Here are a few examples:

This past winter, I put on a scarf made by a friend about five years ago. I took a picture and re-thanked her.

I am still in love with my bathroom tile. (I love tile…not sure why.) I texted the person who installed it seven years ago and told him how much pleasure I get every time I walk into the bathroom. He was surprised and grateful to receive the acknowledgment.

I take pictures of all kinds of things and text the people who gave them to me offering my thanks. Or I might just send a grateful email to a friend with whom I had a lovely visit the night before.

But I always err on the side of saying thank you.

Something critical to this approach is honesty and acknowledging that needs have been met, rather than offering a vague compliment. I don’t thank people to be polite. I share what needs have been met by their contribution to my life.

It helps a great deal to hold this practice, especially when you are feeling distressed about something that’s happened. Are you able to offer gratitude and acknowledgment of needs met at the same time you are requesting solutions to needs unmet? Are you grateful that this person wants to listen and work things out at the same time you are navigating an unpleasant situation? Are you able to acknowledge that you are happy for the honesty and trust you have generated in your relationship at the same time this person is telling you something that brings up fear or hurt or confusion?

A simple, yet robust thank you—only when it is absolutely true—is not just a pleasantry or good manners. It’s deep communication that serves the best of relationships.


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