32 Kinds of Altruism–Starting with Thoughtful Communication


I am close to finishing the first draft of my book on happiness. Basically, I’m opposed to it! That is, I believe some people are born happy, and that for others levels of happiness vary. For this occasionally happy majority, I maintain that having a goal of becoming happier is doomed for disappointment. Instead, I propose that there are five ways to increase one’s sense of well-being, the sense that one is engaged, “in gear” as it were, and is living the kind of life that feels like a right use of one’s makeup and talents. Those five modes of positive being are flow, person-to-environment fit, goal progress, community, and altruism. In future posts I will explain the other four, but in this and the next four posts, I want to present my slant on altruism.

Altruism is simply activity that benefits others. Some altruistic acts also benefit oneself, but in order to be dubbed altruism the primary motive must be to benefit others. I have found 32 ways of being altruistic and have grouped them into five categories:

  • Thoughtful Communication (6)
    • Apologies
    • Crediting
    • Itemized Response for Constructive Feedback
    • Managing Conflict
    • On-the-spot Recognition
    • Thank You’s
  • Positive Regard (7)
    • Compassion
    • Nonverbal Positive Energy
    • Optimism
    • Prayer
    • Smiling and Casual Touching
    • Visualization
    • Zaniness
  • Generous Affection (8)
    • Chattiness
    • Friendship
    • Gratefulness
    • Love—Agape
    • Love—Eros
    • Love—Philia
    • Love—Storge
    • Respect for the Environment
  • Helpful Giving (4)
    • Charity
    • Donations
    • Generativity
    • Pro Bono
  • Beneficial Relief (7)
    • Connecting People
    • Good Samaritan
    • Neighborliness
    • Service
    • Random Acts of Kindness
    • Respite Care
    • Volunteering

In this post, I will briefly explain the six ways of engaging in thoughtful communication. See how many of these are part of your repertoire, and consider whether you might wish to add, modify, or increase your efforts in any of these areas.

Apologies—taking the time to let someone know that you are sorry for a wrong that you have done them, and that you seek their forgiveness, ideally both in writing and face-to-face. Once a friend who had betrayed my trust sent me a letter of apology. In the letter they asked if they might come for a visit so that we could talk the matter through. They expressed no expectation that I would be obliged to forgive them—they just wanted to express their bad feelings, get them off their chest, and hopefully lay them to rest. The effect of the visit was indeed a sense of forgiveness on my part, and we have continued to keep up with one another by having lunch together about once a year.

 Crediting—not just thanking someone, but taking the time to describe exactly what it is that they did, and what the positive consequences were, whether to you or others. I learned this format for crediting, or recognizing, or patting on the back, from the Interpersonal Management Skills (IMS) course offered decades ago by Xerox Learning Systems. I understand that these materials are now available through Achieve Global. According to the IMS program, when you praise someone, in order for the message to have maximum impact, two ingredients are necessary:

  1. describing exactly what the person did, so that there will be no doubt what you are referring to, and
  2. identifying the positive consequences on you or others for which you or they are grateful.

In this manner, the receiver of the credit knows precisely what they did of note, and why it mattered. If I quip “Thanks for cleaning up” to a babysitter as she runs off to her home, she has no idea what I am referring to. She may think I mean that she washed her face! Or, that she picked up toys in the living room. Better: “Thanks for washing the dishes from supper that we had left out. As a result, I will get to bed 30 minutes earlier than I would have and will get a much better night’s sleep. I’ve a big meeting tomorrow, and a good night’s sleep will make a big difference on my sharpness. You go, girl!”

 Itemized Response for Constructive Feedback—when you need to tell someone that they have done something wrong—sometimes called constructive criticism, sometimes called negative feedback. The IMS program based its formula for this communication task on research into what makes people most receptive to such feedback. They found that “itemizing” your response to them—saying not only what they did wrong but also what they did right—makes them less resentful or defensive and potentially even appreciative. It takes more effort to itemize your response, and typically such effort is appreciated. The IMS approach has two components:

  1. describe what the person has done correctly in the situation in question, and
  2. describe, without using judgmental language, what they did incorrectly.

“Your holiday memo is very clever. You do need, however, to doublecheck your spelling—it is Grinch—capitalized and with an ‘i’, not grench!“ As opposed to, for example, “You screwed up the spelling of Grinch—fix it.”

 Managing Conflict—taking the time to help two conflicted parties to understand and resolve their differences. The conflict can be between you and another person, or between two other persons. Your role is to manage the conflict between you and the other person, or between the two other persons. In either case, you are serving as a facilitator of the process. The IMS approach to conflict management involves five steps:

1. Summarize the conflict: “You want to go out to dinner, and I want to stay home. Right?”
2. Identify what is important to each person—what lies behind the stand they are taking:

You: “What is important to you about wanting to go out to dinner?”

They: “I haven’t been out to eat in three weeks. I’m getting cabin fever.”

You: “What’s important to me is that I wanted to kick back and watch my ball game.”

3. Explore possible actions that could satisfy both needs: “Well, we could go to a sports bar, or to a restaurant with a television, or go wherever we want to and watch it on our iPad.”
4. Agree on one course of action, if a mutually agreeable one is possible.
5. If no mutually agreeable action is possible, then you have to accept the right to disagree, and stand your ground.

 On-the-spot Recognition—remarking spontaneously on someone’s noteworthy behavior, as in “That was very thoughtful of you to help that old man across the street” or “I’m impressed that you still have such a radiant smile at 4:45 p.m. on Friday!”

Thank You’s—writing thank you notes (handwritten preferred over emailed, but better either than neither!), especially in a timely manner (i.e., not months later!). Be sure to mention specifics.

In my next post, I will explain the seven ways of exhibiting positive regard. For each of these 32 ways of expressing altruism, continued practice of them is associated with an elevated sense of well-being on the part of the altruistic person.

4 thoughts on “32 Kinds of Altruism–Starting with Thoughtful Communication

Add yours

  1. Having stumbled upon your blog posts on altruism and reading them all thoroughly, I am very intrigued to learn more about the othe four modes of positive being. Your altruism posts were incredibly insightful. Thanks for posting them. I look forward to further posts.

  2. Dr. Howard,
    Hello, my name is Jared Campbell and I’m a Masters of Social Work student at Savannah State University. My masters thesis is on interpersonal communication. One of the sub-factors in the trait measure I have created appears to be thoughtfulness. I am not finding much peer reviewed literature on the concept of ‘thoughtful communication’. I wondered if you had found any scholarly articles or literature you used while developing the concept. Any shared information would be greatly appreciated.
    Best regards,

  3. Jared,
    Before directly answering, I need more information. First, what is your complete research question–i.e., what are you trying to find out about interpersonal communication and/or “thoughtful communication”? Second, what do you mean by the term “thoughtful communication.” I have not heard that exact term before. Do you mean communication that is considerate of others? Or do you mean mindfulness? Or do you mean communication based on evidence-based thinking? Or do you mean communication that focuses on the needs of others? Or something else?

  4. Good stuff. Years ago I took the Xerox Learning Systems course for Professional Sales Skills 3 and the Interpersonal Managing Skills 3 course, I see some pieces of that system here mixed with other good insights and approaches. Well Done. -John.

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