The courage to face ingratitude*


It’s not often discussed the phenomenon of ingratitude, and yet it’s a common experience.

Every parent knows it intimately, and several of the leaders I interviewed last year spoke of the shock and bewilderment of experiencing it. Here were people giving everything they had to some cause – selling their assets, going without salaries, pouring in hour after hour of their time – only to have one or more people levy some accusation such as manipulation, dishonesty or hypocrisy against them. As they spoke, it was clear they were experiencing afresh the shock of having something quite foreign to their intention attributed to them.

The phenomenon of ingratitude is interesting because it shows us something about communication in general.

There’s a misunderstanding at play

When a person is on the end of some seriously disconcerting ingratitude, he will not like it, will be shocked. However, the scale of the gap between what he’s putting out there and what he’s getting back usually tells him something too.

It tells him, more easily than in some other situations of conflict, that there is a misunderstanding at play.

He can see the issue is over there with the other person.

What human beings fail to see is that this same mechanism – that the issue is over there with the other person – is at play in all conversations with all people.

Another way to say it is that human beings fail to see they and others are listening to people and situations using readymade listenings.

Readymade listenings

These readymade listenings are generally decided upon in the first contacts with the person or situation, and thereafter, they’re set in stone. So when one person is having a conversation with another person, what they are listening to is not the other person; they’re listening to their readymade listening of that person or situation.

In the case of the parent or a leader providing something extraordinary for their child or another person, and having ingratitude flung in their face, the child or other person literally cannot hear the action or the words. Instead, something about the situation or the leader has reactivated a readymade listening from the past, and the child or other person is listening to that.

It has little to do with what the parent or leader is saying or doing in the present, and may have nothing to do with the actual person. For example, a person may listen to a leader using the readymade listening he has of his father or mother or a friend he did or didn’t like in the past.

Putting the past back in the past

How can human beings get outside the readymade listenings? By putting the past back in the past via a major intervention. For me, the major intervention was doing the Landmark Forum; other people will have other ways. The intervention is not the end of it; it is the beginning.

But a beginning is precisely what is missing.


Image: by Cerise Doucede

Note: The paragraph titled, “There’s a misunderstanding at play”, was edited after publication. There was a misunderstanding at play in the original version.

* The title of this post is taken from an e-book written by a blogging colleague, Gregg Hake, who put his finger on this under-discussed phenomenon.


17 thoughts on “The courage to face ingratitude*

  1. I love the term “readymade listening”–that’s exactly what it is. Instead of really listening, we “hear” clues which confirm our expectations and the result is zero communication and at best zero progress.


  2. Love some of these recent images you’ve been posting with objects floating in the air. makes me feel right at home. I’m grateful for that :)


  3. What! were you standing outside my window, as we just went through that with a grown child. Not that we didn’t know this, but that you posted it just now.

    As to the picture, so many peeled apples and so little appreciation, even though we teach the people around us how to treat us, others also teach them how to mistreat us as well. Few of us wish this to be so. Your picture is truly worth a thousand words. Nice posting!


    • Hi John. The woman in the picture looks like she’s familiar with ingratitude, doesn’t she?

      It’s the age-old story between parents and children. Each is wanting something from the other, a blessing. The parent is wanting the blessing of hearing, “You did a great job, including the bits that didn’t work so well, because you gave it your all. Well done.” The child is wanting the blessing of hearing, “You are a capable, fully-grown human being. I trust and respect your judgement, including where it differs from mine.”

      The message may not be communicated through words, and it may not be communicated by the other person. What matters is that the parent gets their message, and the child gets their message.


      • yes, and I thought as I read it how those who visit all our blog sites also come ready listened. As well as we do too. In the case of this “ready reading” without the history of bygone gifts that deserve the gratitude but do deserve respect until they don’t. again a good posting.


      • Years ago I learned a word “perspecuity” it means that when you communicate, you actually talk until you understand what is being said and they understand what you are saying, and you don’t stop talking until they and you do understand. It requires lots of back and forth questions and answers, and a willing communication partner. Over the years I would not make an agreement with anyone until they agreed to reach perspecuity and know it. That seems lost these days!


      • Reminds me of that quotation by George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

        PS. I don’t buy it that communication was different in some previous time. That’s a readymade listening ;)


      • Yes G.Shaw had it right. I don’t think communication was different in some previous time either. I meant that for me over time the people I communicate do so differently to me. That was lost in my communications over time. Things move quicker today, even my own communications have become more clipped, as here in a small text box it is difficult to really make a point in depth. Readymade reading is awaiting anything I might type. I agree with your point. that was the point. Thanks


  4. I just experienced this very thing with my daughter as she was preparing for the prom. We had issues until the day of. I attribute it to immature age. When it gets beyond a certain age, it’s not only ingratititude but selfish. She’s learning and as far as I’m concerned, has no choice but to get better. Time makes all the diference in the world.


    • The prom preparation can really take something, can’t it? There’s the girl whose overwhelming concern is to look good, ie, pretty/cool/desirable, to her peers and she may be feeling scared she can’t do it, can’t handle it, scared it might not turn out, scared she’ll be ignored, and so on. And there’s the mother, probably exhausted from dragging around to shop after shop looking for dresses, and spending money and receiving little or no thanks for her contribution, and she may be feeling left behind, anxious about how her daughter will handle all that lies ahead, and maybe she’s wondering what it means for her own love life now that her daughter’s embarking on hers.

      Your daughter literally cannot hear your actions, your contribution and love. All she can hear is her own fear and excitement.


  5. As always, great post. Something to chew on…

    Gratitude is so wrapped up (for me at least) with expectations. If we could give freely (without expectations) than ingratitude wouldn’t be an issue. You’re right when you say it’s about the other person (we should not take anything personally, as if people are consciously trying to make us miserable), but we should always be willing to look inside ourselves and investigate our intentions and reactions. If there is any hint of “I”, “Me” , “Mine” or the like, then we’re probably just headed for some good old fashioned suffering!


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