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Giving and Receiving Gifts in Conversation

| January 5, 2010

by Jim Bruce

Welcome to 2010!  I trust that each of you had a wonderful time with family and friends.  Just before Christmas Roger Schwartz published “Giving and Receiving Gifts in Conversation” in his Fundamental Change newsletter.  I found the article so thought provoking that I have published it here as this week’s reading  by permission.

Two Decembers ago, I wrote about giving and receiving gifts. Many readers found it helpful as they prepared for the holidays, so I have begun sharing the article each December:

For many of us, this is a season of receiving and giving gifts.  It reminds me that in conversation, people offer you gifts and you have a chance to gift gifts in return. But, do you see the gifts others are offering you? If you do, do you accept them or reject them?

The gifts I’m talking about aren’t tangible – no iPods, gift cards, or chocolates. These are gifts of understanding, learning, and connection.

What is a gift in conversation? A gift is something a person says to you that – if you acknowledge it and explore it – creates an opportunity to deepen the conversation. It helps you better understand how the person is thinking and feeling. It helps the person and you explore each other’s needs. It helps the two of you figure out how to work together better.

How to recognize and open a gift. What does a gift in conversation look like? Some gifts are easy to recognize because they come wrapped in a compliment. When a colleague says, “You did a great job on that presentation to the directors,” the compliment is not the gift.  The gift is the opportunity for you to learn more about what the colleague thought was great. You open and engage the gift when you respond by saying something like, “Thanks. I’m curious, what was it that I did that you thought was great? I’m asking because this way I can make sure to keep on doing it.”

Unfortunately, some of the most valuable gifts you are offered in conversation come horribly wrapped. They look bad, sound bad, and can even feel bad to open. Because we judge the gift by its wrapping, we don’t like to open these gifts – and we are poorer for it. Imagine you’re having a conversation with a direct report about her performance and she says, “I would have achieved all my goals this year if I had support from you.” If you ignore the comment, simply disagree, or say, “We’re here to talk about your performance, not mine,” you’ve just rejected the gift you’ve been offered.  If you want to open the gift, try saying something like, “I thought I was supporting you. Tell me more; what are you thinking I was doing or not doing that didn’t support you?”  

If you want to get better at recognizing and open gifts, look for times in a conversation where the person says something that bothers you, confuses you, or that you disagree with. These are powerful opportunities for learning.

How to give a gift in return.  When you accept a person’s gift – no matter how terribly wrapped – and respond with curiosity and compassion, you are giving a gift in return. In short, you are creating a safe space to talk about things that really matter. This type of gift is priceless.

As you get together with family and friends in the coming days, be generous in your conversations. Look for gifts you can receive and ways to respond that deepen your relationships.

Written by Roger Schwarz, copyright Roger Schwarz & Associates <>, 2009.  

Best wishes for the New Year.  .  .  .   jim