The Secret to Great Relationships? Appreciation.

I’m co-leading a workshop on March 1st that gives you great practice with feedback. Click here for more info!

You might not realize it, but every time you mention to someone that you appreciate something they did, you’re strengthening that relationship. Whether it’s with your life partner, kids, or colleagues, that appreciation is the key to building long-lasting relationships.

One of my favorite studies on this was done by John Gottman, who found that the healthiest couples had 5x as much positive feedback (appreciation) as constructive feedback (criticism).


That means that for every one time you mention to the love of your life something that doesn’t work for you, you need to mention 5 things that work great.

So why do we need to give so much positive feedback? Our minds automatically filter for negative feedback. We’ve learned to pay more attention to bad things, than to good things, because we’re constantly looking for danger.

He mentioned that didn’t put that thing back in the right place, that could be just the tip of the iceberg of all the things I’m doing wrong, and if I keep doing things wrong, he won’t love me and we’ll end up getting divorced and the kids will hate me and…

You see where I’m going here. Positive feedback isn’t a threat, and so we don’t hear it as clearly as we do negative feedback. But when we hear it 5x as often, it starts to get through – and when it does, it creates an amazing rapport.

Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about what we lovingly call a “sh*t sandwich” – where you lead with a piece of positive feedback, insert a quick piece of criticism, and close with positive feedback.

If you make sh*t sandwiches, then the person you’re giving them to just learns to tune out the positive feedback – they know what you’re feeding them!

What I’m talking about is offering genuine appreciation: telling the person you love how the great thing they did made you feel.

There are many ways to show appreciation, but some are more likely to get through that mind filter than others. Give your appreciation as much impact as possible by:

  • Telling them as soon as you notice (don’t wait):  let it be as spontaneous as possible

  • Telling them exactly what you noticed: be super specific about what behavior you loved

  • Telling them precisely how it made you feel: use feeling words – and avoid “I feel like…”

When you give that super specific positive feedback in the moment, telling them exactly what they did that you loved and how you felt as a result, the person you’re giving it to is much more likely to actually hear it.

Since you’re now on a mission to 5x the amount of positive feedback you’re giving, you’ll want a bunch of different ways to do it. Here are my favorites:

Thank people for the little things. The dishwasher got emptied? The trash got taken out? The kids got out the door on-time? Notice, and thank the person who made it happen.

For example, you might notice that the trash got taken out, and feel relieved and grateful, but not mention it for a few days, then casually say off-hand, “Thanks for taking the trash out last week.” Way better than not mentioning it at all, for sure! But without the immediacy, or any context about how important taking out the trash is to you, it’s not likely to really land as appreciation for the other person.

Instead, as soon as you notice the trash got taken out, make direct eye contact with them (or even give them a hug) and say, “Thanks for taking the trash out just now. The kitchen already smells better, and I feel much more comfortable.”

Thank people for being themselves. Often, people don’t even realize that we love them for who they are, as much as for what they do. Make it a point to tell them when how they’re showing up for you is making your life better.

For example, if you’re having a really great conversation, feeling the connection between the two of you about a topic that’s tough for you to talk about, in the past you might have just said nothing about it, or said, “You’re so great.”

That’s appreciation, for sure! But it’s vague. It doesn’t tell the person you love how to be so great again, or even how it feels for you when they’re so great.

Instead, try something like this: “I love how you’re listening to me right now. I really needed to just talk this out, and you helped me do that by listening without trying to fix anything. I feel so much calmer. Thank you!”

Develop your feeling vocabulary. We have a wealth of words to describe how we feel, but we fall back on vague words like “great” and “awful”. When you take a moment to get clear about what emotion is actually going on, and then articulate that to the other person, it connects the two of you way more than a vague good/bad.

But be extra careful about “I feel like…” vs “I feel”!  When you say “I feel like,” you’re usually following it with a thought or an opinion.

If you hear yourself starting to say “I feel like…” that’s a red flag that you’re not talking about feelings! Stop and figure out what word describes the feeling you’re having.

For example, if your partner got the kids ready and out the door on time, and that’s something that’s hard for you to do, you might start expressing your appreciation like this: “Thanks for getting the kids ready and out the door this morning! I feel like you’re so good at that and I can really learn something from you.” On the surface, this looks like appreciation – but it’s actually judgement, of them and of yourself.

 Instead, you might say, “Thanks for getting the kids ready and out the door! I felt so relieved that you took that ball this morning. I feel frustrated with myself about not being able to get everyone ready as quickly as you do, and seeing you manage to do it inspires me to keep trying.”

Stay away from “always” and “never”. When you stick one or the other of those little words into your sentence, you create a big weight that doesn’t actually help the relationship.

Give feedback about a specific instance that made you feel a specific way, rather than generalizing.

For example, you might be tempted to say, “You always get the kids out the door on-time.” But what happens now if one morning, they don’t? There’s a subtle expectation that they’ll always do what you like if your appreciation is about how they always do - and that suddenly your love will be withdrawn if they fail to do it.

If, instead, you say, “You got the kids out the door on-time this morning, and every other morning this week,” you’re not creating that same expectation. Keeping your feedback specific releases both of you from any obligation about how things go in the future: you can just appreciate what’s happening, now.

Give physical affection along with your thanks. It’s a natural impulse to hug someone when you’re feeling really great about them – and it directly communicates appreciation. The person you hug knows you really mean it when you combine appreciative words with an embrace. And, as human beings, we need loving touch – it’s not just our kids who crave that! Showing your love with a hug or a kiss can help the person really hear your appreciation, and build the trust between you.

Your Turn!

It can seem like a tall order to go from zero to 5x appreciation, so start with a small step and build from there. You might try challenging yourself to look for one thing your partner does each day that you can appreciate this week, and see what happens - or, adding hugs to your thanks.

What are you curious to try first? Tell me in the comments below!

I’m co-leading a workshop on March 1st that gives you great practice with feedback. Click here for more info!