Essential Elements Series: Essence Appreciation

Essence Appreciation is a simple expression of an appreciated essential quality of a person provided as positive feedback.

In Speaking Circles, listeners are encouraged to provide Essence Appreciation at the end of a speaker’s turn. Essence Appreciation is the voluntary expression by some, not necessarily all, the listeners in the audience of a few words that sincerely express their experience of the speaker and this individual’s felt presence. Essence Appreciation does not include comment on the content of what was said or physical attributes of the speaker. The speaker repeats these appreciative words, in turn, with no commentary, doing their best to simply “take them in.”

For example, a listener might say “luminous presence” or “edgy fun” or “penetrating insight.”

In social and performance situations, it is not uncommon to fear being negatively evaluated by others. In an exaggerated state this forms the basis of social phobias and anxiety disorders.1 Individuals with social anxiety disorders have overactivation of brain regions processing emotion, most notably in the amygdala2 – a brain region that is necessary for fear-related behaviors and learned fear responses (e.g., phobias and triggered emotional responses in posttraumatic stress disorder). Altered firing of neurons in the amygdala and networks they connect to may result in hypersensitivity to negative words and judgements.3 Furthermore, people with social hypersensitivity may also have increased reactivity to the absence of positive feedback.4

A recent brain imaging study demonstrated that using the word “yes” activates a key region in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain essential for punishment and reward associations, whose activity is suppressed by the word “no.”5 This suggests that the words we use specifically stimulate neuronal pathways that inspire or subdue our motivation. Moreover, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, in their book “Words Can Change Your Brain” describe how words can affection action and belief systems.6 They write:

“A positive view of yourself will bias you toward seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will incline you toward suspicion and doubt. Over time, the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thoughts, and feelings, and we believe that the thalamic changes affect the way in which you perceive reality.”

The experience of hearing and re-stating Essence Appreciation during a Speaking Circle may thus significantly increase Relational Presence as practitioners begin to identify with the positive qualities expressed and feel nurtured by their audience. Essence Appreciation, therefore, may limit self-referenced negative thought patterns that interfere with remaining present and connected with others.


1. Association AP. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington (DC): American Psychiatric Press; 2000.

2. Birbaumer N, Grodd W, Diedrich O, et al. fMRI reveals amygdala activation to human faces in social phobics. Neuroreport. 1998;9(6):1223-1226.

3. Laeger I, Dobel C, Radenz B, et al. Of 'disgrace' and 'pain'--corticolimbic interaction patterns for disorder-relevant and emotional words in social phobia. PLoS One. 2014;9(11):e109949.

4. Cikara M, Girgus JS. Unpacking social hypersensitivity: vulnerability to the absence of positive feedback. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2010;36(10):1409-1423.

5. Alia-Klein N, Goldstein RZ, Tomasi D, et al. What is in a word? No versus Yes differentially engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. Emotion. 2007;7(3):649-659.

6. Newberg A, Waldman MR. Words can change your brain. New York: Hudson Street Press; 2012