[Coaching Tips] How to Say Thanks (and When and Why)

The gift fruit basket from Wendy and Richard Yanowitch was over the top, but it was really the simple handwritten card expressing what I had done and their thanks for my behavior that hit the bulls eye. Their thank you letter, as my friend Cathy Madison at Cathedral School for Boys might saw, “was a keeper.”

The next day at the school bus stop Lola’s mom, Charley Zechas, totally out of blue turned to me and said “I like having you at our bus stop. You make things feel present. Thank you.”

Two thanks, both unexpected, and both the types of things that make you feel alive with that certain warm glow inside. So what can you take away from these examples?

Four principles, and you can apply them to your world, both at work and at home,  just as I hope to apply them to mine:

  • Thanks is best given when it’s authentic and sincere. If you don’t feel good about what someone’s done, skip the platitudes and spare everyone. It’s a general North American cultural bias but this is a  look people in the eye (even if you’re writing a note) and express thanks your thoughts and feelings sort of thing.

  • Thank people for what they did – avoid the thanks for “who they are.” Carol Dweck’s shown with her research regarding performance that describing the way someone did something (even if it’s just trying hard) in a positive, thankful manner will encourage people to try again the next time. Praising people for who they are (e.g. “You’re so smart.”) is disabling and leads to impaired performance. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Oregon, but I was always taught that if you want to thank someone, it makes sense to help, rather than hinder them. So praise people for what they did – not for who they are.

  • Praise – which is a form of thanks – is best when it’s timely. Does the praise need to be right after the act of behavior. No. But it should be reasonably time bound. Thanking someone for saving your child has less impact 6 months after the fact than if you had said the same thing six hours or six days after the event.

  • Thanks is best when it’s somewhat unexpected. Humans have an interesting ability to calibrate against some mythic high water mark when praise and recognition are doled out in predictable patterns. If you’re predictable, you need to exceed the high water mark to have any impact. Recognition like a thank you has greater impact when it’s unusual, unexpected, and / or infrequent. Writer (Both Side of the Table) and venture capitalist Mark Suster recently tweeted the story of losing his lap top at his hotel. He gave the 2 folks that found it $40 each as thanks. My advice? Find out their names, and follow-up with a hand note with perhaps a gift card. Why? Because my hunch is that some people pay cash for thanks, but hardly anyone also sends a handwritten card and an added symbol of appreciation.

My friend and colleague Jo Whitehouse has this thanks part down pat.. Her thanks are always thoughtful, specific to the behavior involved, and yet not so predictable. A former boss, Magnus Lundberg, did a pretty good job as well. His motto was “cool mind, warm heart.” This is warm heart stuff, and we should all be so skilled as Jo and Magnus.

So that’s it. Four simple principles for knowing how to thank someone. And thank you for reading!

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.