As the season’s festivities fade into the background, the task of writing thank you letters looms large.  Ideally, one likes to have completed the task before the 12th night has passed and all the decorations are safely back in the loft.  Only then can we get back to being grumpy about January with its (already) broken resolutions and gloomy weather.  But as I was writing my thank you letters I started to think whether I preferred giving to receiving.  The natural reaction, I suppose, is to preferring receiving.  Indeed, the question asked is invariably what did you get, rather than what did you give for Christmas. However, I think that my preference is for giving.  It’s not that I enjoy shopping (which I don’t) but I do enjoy searching out interesting gifts for people in the same way that I get pleasure in matching the right guests with the right food and the right wine at a dinner party.  Aha, I hear you say, perhaps it’s not so much the giving that’s giving the pleasure as the receiving of the plaudits for having got the giving right. Touché.

It may also be that giving is a sign of wanting to be in control; of trying to dictate rather than offering openly.  Some people – and we all know some – are always in transmit mode.  They give their opinions, whether asked for or not, and are always on the front foot. Perhaps they are giving because they find it difficult to listen or empathise; or it may be that they are so sure of their position that they are not particularly interested in hearing from anyone else.  Similarly, Ambrose Bierce marvellously defined a bore as someone who talks when you want them to listen.

Listening and receiving are not as easy as they seem.  Both require stepping back and allowing others to make the running.  As one wise person once said to me, you must allow people to be generous. However, too many conversations are in reality merely two people taking it in turns to talk.  In business situations it can often be much worse with some people not stopping to listen, or even to pause for breath; rather, they stop to reload. Real listening is hard.  It’s even harder when we realise that the words spoken are only part of what is being conveyed.  To receive the full picture requires listening to the unspoken as well as the spoken, and truly understanding the context.  But the hardest part of all is that in order to receive properly one needs to suspend all ones own judgements.  Only then can the whole picture emerge.

During a recent workshop that I took part in, we were asked to spend two minutes telling others in our small group about all our strengths.  Their job was to listen out for any caveats or qualifications.  It was a lot tougher than it sounds.  It doesn’t feel natural to tell other people how good we are.  Perhaps we’ve been brought up to think that pride comes before a fall, or that it’s rude to blow ones own trumpet.  However, the object of the exercise was less about giving and more about receiving plaudits. The point was that too often we tend to put ourselves down and not give ourselves credit for what we are good at.  From a positive psychology point of view, it can be very helpful to receive affirmation of ones strengths and who better to receive them from than oneself.

P G Wodehouse once said: “As we grow older and realise more clearly the limitations of human happiness, we come to see that the only real and abiding pleasure in life is to give pleasure to other people.” However, as I grow older I see that it is important to get the balance right.  Much as I love giving I am now having to learn to be better at receiving.  A good reminder is the cautionary tale of the depressed man (and this was in the early 1830’s) going to see a doctor.  The doctor realised just how sad the man was and decided that he needed cheering up.  What you must do, said the doctor, is to go and see the famous clown Grimaldi.  He has people rolling in the aisles.  He’ll certainly cheer you up.  But doctor, said the man, you don’t understand.  You see, I am Grimaldi.

So here’s a little trick that I learnt at an early age from a favourite uncle.  Every year, under the tree and neatly wrapped, is a present.  The label says: To Tim, Happy Christmas, from Tim.  Now, I better go and finish writing my thank you letters…