The Two Skills of Gift Giving

Well, for many people on this list, Christmas will have just happened and gifts will have been, in some fashion, given and received. If you got any gifts, there’s a good chance that you loved some of them and other ones had you utterly question your friendship with that person and wonder if they even knew you at all.

There’s that scene in Dead Poet’s Society where one of the students gets, yet again, the same Christmas gift from his father that he got last year. And the year before. And the year before that. I remember growing up and one of my aunt’s sending me books that bore no mark of her knowing of me or perhaps the full mark of her not knowing me at all. I remember looking at them, books for adults by an author who, at twelve years old, I’d never heard of and wondering, “Why?”

I am writing to you about marketing though it may not seem like it at first.

Let me come to it slowly.

Gift giving, that old, reliable, village-making and culture-feeding institution, is a big moment in a friendship but it is rarely understood as such and so rarely occurs as such. Gift giving, what gift is selected, when it is given and how, is where the whole rest of the friendship is called to appear – it’s where one finds out how much of a friendship was there in the first place.

Sadly, what is revealed, when many gifts are given, is that they were not paying much attention to you over the past year at all.

This isn’t to blame anyone. The pace of modern life is relentless, the pressures are well and truly unmanageable and we certainly carry an entitlement to the attention of others that seduces down the hill of narcissism with its constant whispers of how worthy, central and important we are while, in truth, in this fast-food, single-serving, modern world, we are lucky to be on the receiving end of the attention of others whenever it happens. There’s so much pressure on us all.

Even if the pressure is off for a while, in the dominant cultures in the world we are deeply unskilled at being on the receiving, observing, and regarding side of the world and other people.

And so this is the first of the two skills needed for gift giving.

The first is the real skill of being able to sit there and let another person’s ways have their ways with us. We live in a culture where, instead of looking at the blank screen for what it is, we project onto it. The mountain is no longer a mountain – it becomes a metaphor for struggle and triumph. A coyote is not longer a coyote, it’s a spiritual messenger meant just for us whose message we can decipher by looking it up in a book about ‘messages from spirit animals’ or calling up that native friend of ours who knows so much. The meat we eat was never a live animal. Our parents aren’t human beings who had complete lives before we showed up, they were only ever that.

And there it is, this strip-malled Empire we walk around in daily, constantly telling us, “If it’s in the world, it must be there for you.”

There is more to see but our capacity to project our unmet needs, unfulfilled desires and unprocessed feelings onto others stops us from ever, truly learning them.

How can one get a gift that would truly touch the heart of another if one doesn’t understand them at all because one has never really seen them at all for who and what they are without all of our mad and insistent projections?

It becomes further complicated because, even if we did truly see someone, we truly set aside our habitual lenses and filters, or grace descends and allows us to be on the receiving end of one we admire… in a year they’ve changed and in ten years they may resemble who they were very little.

A simple example of this being: you were vegetarian ten years ago but then stopped. You’ve eaten meat ever since. And then, for Christmas, your uncle gets you a vegetarian cookbook and you look up at him and wonder how he missed the last ten years. Then you recall eating steak with him two years ago but it didn’t seem to register.

And here is the secret: people are telling you who they are all the time. People are telling you what gifts they might want all the time. If you leave a conversation with someone with no sense of what a perfect gift for them might be, then I would submit it either wasn’t much of a conversation or you weren’t listening well or both.

It’s a fine orientation to come to an interaction with, as you sit there in their presence, to wonder, ‘What gift might I get this person that would touch their heart and show them, conclusively, that I was paying attention?’

My brother loves cooking and so, one Christmas, I got him one of those fancy, folded steel, Japanese cooking knives. I think it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever given.

The secret to it was that I never asked him once if he wanted one or had considered them. I just paid attention. This is the test, are you attending well enough, obedient (from the roots that pertain to ‘listening’) to what they say and what goes unsaid, that you could choose a gift that would stun them with its thoughtfulness.

My friend Olenka was leaving Edmonton. She hosted a farewell potluck during which nothing was happening. There was no orchestrated farewell. And so I gave her one. I asked those present to miss her to her face. I invited them to tell her that they didn’t want her to go and to help her understand the size of the hole that she would be leaving when she left. This was my gift to Olenka. That she could be wept over and not cry alone as she’d been doing for weeks with the fears that no one would miss her and that she’d be forgotten. When my dear friend Hannah left Edmonton I wept in front of her too. This is a gift you can give to people. 

I recall Martin Shaw talking about the biggest gift you can give to friends and lovers from the past who, of their own volition, moved on from your life. “Let them go,” he said. “Let them go.”

Sometimes the best gift you can give is advice and sometimes the best advice is to give absolutely no advice at all but to just listen and give empathy instead.

I was recently up in Northern Alberta and, at the end of a daylong workshop, I was gifted the most beautiful, hand-made, felted vest. It made me cry right up there in front of everyone. The night before we had sat in a small, log cabin owned by a couple named Tim and Linda. Tim had been wearing one of these fine vests, and I fawned over it fiercely, admiring the time and energy it must have take to make it. Raising the sheep, shearing the wool by hand, washing the wool, carding it and then felting it and then cutting and sewing and embroidering it. And my new friend, Kolby, my host for the event, had bought one the next day for me and gave it to me. That is how you give a gift. I never told her I wanted it. I never asked for it. I showered it with appreciation out loud and she heard me. 

It’s not so hard. People are always telling you what they want.

You go out to a bar and you hear a friend rave about the Sake there and how rarely they get to drink it. So, next Christmas, you wrap up a bottle of it for them. You are showing them, without saying anything, “I paid attention. I am glad to know you. Here’s my proof.”

You have a friend who runs an indigenous arts festival and they are always struggling for money and so you invite them for coffee to share a fundraising model you know of that might help change things for them forever. You are showing them, without saying anything, “I see the labour you put in to make this festival happen and to carry your community on your back and this is my way of acknowledging that.”

You have a friend who is a single parent and you send them a bit of money out of the blue or tell them you’d be happy to watch the kids one night so that they can hit the town and do whatever they want. You are showing them, without saying anything, “I see the labour you put in to feed your children and this is my way of acknowledging that.”

You go over to a friend’s house and are fed an amazing dinner and so you do the dishes and clean their kitchen. You are showing them, without saying anything, “I see the labour you put in to feed me and this is my way of acknowledging that.”

People are telling you all the time what they want.

This happens all the time. We assume that we already know people and so we stop learning them.

Learning how to do this is a cultural thing. The failure to do so is a cultural failing. This is a skill that must be taught.

But then there is a second skill, the skill of translating what one has witnessed into a gift for them that they didn’t see coming. A gift can be a way of saying, “I was watching. I was listening.”

And that is its own immense skill. There is a craftsmanship here. There is a capacity to select, of all the options, the perfect one or, if no options exist, to create one.

But that second skills hinges on the first.

So these are the two skills: the first to receive the person and the second to give to them something that confirms the fact of the first. Without the first, there can be no second. And without the second, what was the point of the first? The first skill is hearing them. The second skill is offering the proof that you did.

Without these twin skills, we are left with “No no. I was listening. Trust me. I heard you.” But why should anyone trust us that we were paying attention in the face of mounting evidence saying that we haven’t been paying attention at all? It’s an unkind approach to constantly demand trust in the face of evidence to the contrary. This is called gaslighting. That fellow in the Whitehouse currently does it all of the time. Better to prove it and to do so consistently.

It could be so that your appearance amongst us is all the proof we need that our ancestors are still with us. They looked at the troubles of the times we found ourselves in and they crafted their response – you. It could be, as my Cree friend Lewis often says, “My elders told me that the reason babies come into the world with their fist closed is because they are coming with gifts to give us.”

And the communities willingness and capacity to take care of you is the proof to you that we see what a gift you are and the gifts you were laden with before you made your way here. Our caring for you and fostering those gifts is our way of saying to our ancestors, “We see you. We see what you have done for us. We are grateful. Our proof is that we take care of this one.”

Being on the receiving end of a good gift is so very rare that it stops us in our tracks when it happens. Again, it says so much more about this culture than it does about us as people.

These two skills show up in business (or they don’t) all the time.

You can translate the word ‘gift’ into the word ‘offer’ with great accuracy.

Our offers that we make to our email list and to our virtual and live audiences, are our gifts to them.

They are the proof of all of the ways that we have, or have not, being paying attention to them.

I remember hearing a story about British Airways asking their trans-atlantic, first class customers what they wanted most during the long flights. “To be left alone! Let us sleep!” was the resounding answer. They were tired of being woken up every 30 minutes by the overly helpful flight attendants.

Disney Hotels came to a similar recognition years ago when their customers told them they didn’t want or need for their rooms to be cleaned every night.

When you offer a payment plan, or PWYC option or sliding scale, it’s your way of saying, “I get it. Money can be tight.”

When you come up with a package focused on a very particular issue it’s a way of saying to your people, “I know you don’t have the time or energy to learn all of this and translate it to your own situation and so I’ve done it for you.”

When you create an online version of a popular live program, it’s a way of saying, “I know you’d love to travel to come to my workshop but I know that costs so much time and money. So let me offer it this way.”

Offering a lot of free content on your website is a way of saying, “I see how scary it is to approach someone like me. I see the risks involved. And so let me do what I can to lower that risk.”

Good customer service is your proof to your customers that you see the immense frustration they’re going through and what it has cost them.

What is it that is actually meaningful to me? A handwritten note, the kind that Mark Silver of Heart of Business sends me from time to time.

What is not meaningful to me? A card from yousendit.com with a printed signature – the exact same card they send to every client. Those make me angry. Why did they waste the time, money and paper on this? They could have given a meal to a homeless person for the price of this. I throw them out, unread, every single time The message these cards send is, “We are trying to do the right thing but we are too lazy to do the real thing so we thought we’d send you this facsimile.” I remember another colleague of mine sending me a video card. You opened it and a video played. It was a video of him speaking directly to me. It was clever. It was personal. And yet… it was a single use of precious resources that had to be thrown out after. Why would he send me something that couldn’t be recycled?

You customers, if you are in touch with them, are telling you what they want all the time: in every coaching session, in every workshop and on your social media feed. They are telling you – directly and indirectly – how to make the perfect offer to them.

What might the opposite of gift giving be?

Perhaps it might be theft. Perhaps when we are not thoughtful in our gift giving we aren’t giving people something that will bless them but something that will frustrate them. We are burdening them with something to deal with not something that will delight them.

When we don’t offer a payment plan, or PWYC option or sliding scale, it might be our way of saying, “I don’t get it. Just pony up. If you won’t pay the money then it’s because you clearly don’t value me and yourself.”

When we come up with a package focused on a very particular issue we might be robbing people of their time.

When we won’t create an online version of a popular live program it could be a way of robbing people of their time and money by making them fly across the world to see us.

A refusal to create free content on our websites could be a way of robbing people of their safety.

Bad customer service is your proof to your customers that you see the immense frustration they’re going through and what it has cost them. We rob them of relief.

When our copy writing is fuzzy we rob people of time and inner peace and replace it with confusion and frustration. 

It’s worth considering.

And so, you haven’t gotten an email from me over the past ten days.

Why might that be?

It could be laziness. But it could also be that it is my way of saying, “I think what you most want over the holidays is to not be disturbed. I hear about how many emails you get. I see all of the Christmas offers and my guess is that what you would prefer over another offer, during a time you are deluged with offers, is silence and space.”

It’s a small way of letting you know that I see you and what you are going through.

Further Reading:

Courting vs. Seduction in Marketing
Wrapping Your Gifts
Generous Gifts vs. Free Samples
Stop Wasting People’s Time: The Incredible Cost of Being Fuzzy

About Tad