The Power of Identifying the Gift

The Power of Identifying the Gift

Michael McCullough at the University of Miami conducted a study1 in which they asked 300 participants to recall an insult or offense that had been eating at them. One third of these participants were asked to describe the event and how it had hurt them; another third were asked to describe the event and something they gained or learned from it (a technique called positive cognitive reappraisal); and the remainder were asked to describe their plans for the next day. The follow-up assessment found that those who identified the gift in the event felt significantly more forgiving towards those who had offended them. They were less inclined than the other groups to seek revenge or avoid those who had hurt them. This confirms our own findings: looking for the gift in feedback helps us learn more from our experiences and build healthier relationships.

Extensive new research has demonstrated that reappraisal, the reframing of an event to expose its attendant benefits, is positively associated with greater optimism, resilience, and life satisfaction.2,3 All this research supports the insights of Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher:

  • If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Cognitive reappraisal involves reframing one’s experiences as more positive—or at least less negative. When someone is in a car accident and says, “At least no one was hurt,” or “It’s a good thing I’m insured,” they are practicing cognitive reappraisal. On the other hand, people who focus on the negative and ignore the positive are more likely to get angry in the present and experience greater anxiety and depression over the long term.

Given the benefits of cognitive reappraisal, let’s consider it in the context of receiving criticism: essentially, cognitive reappraisal sounds very much like the concepts Paula shared with Matt in The Feedback Breakthrough as well as in Where’s the Gift?

  • All feedback is a gift—the packaging it arrives in is inconsequential.
  • This is helpful. In reality, the most unhelpful feedback is no feedback at all; indifference is the cruelest insult.
  • I learn more from straight talkers than I do from diplomats.
  • The discomfort I feel right now is natural and is a force for good; it will help me grow and improve.
  • It could be a lot worse: my supervisor could have waited until the year-end review to give me this feedback.
  • There is an element of honor in candor. Candor is evidence that the feedback giver thinks I’m an adult who wants the truth and is capable of handling the truth.
  • She sees me as someone with potential—and her feedback, despite the poor delivery, will help me reach that potential.
  • He’s angry, but there is a silver lining; his frustration has pushed him to be honest with me, and knowledge is power.
  • Keep asking yourself, “What can I learn from this? Where’s the gift?”
  • Don’t throw the gift away because you don’t like either the wrapping or the gift giver.

In summary, cognitive reappraisal is a powerful technique for regulating your emotions during difficult conversations and preventing those emotions from derailing the conversation. More importantly, the practice is linked to better relationships as well as greater optimism, resilience, and happiness. If your emotions sometimes get the better of you during difficult conversations, we recommend you read our in-depth exploration of this important issue: “How to Manage Your Emotions.”

1 M.E. McCullough, L.M. Root, and A.D. Cohen, “Writing About the Benefits of an Interpersonal Transgression Facilitates Forgiveness,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 887-897, 2006.
2 B.Q. Ford, S.J. Lwi, A.L. Geutzler, and B. Hawkin, “The Cost of Thinking Emotions are Uncontrollable,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 147, 1170-1190, 2018.
3 L.M. Braunstein, J.J. Gross, and K.N. Ochsner, “Explicit and Implicit Emotion Regulation,” Journal of Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 12(10), 1545-1547, October 2017.

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