Updated: May 3, 2022
I’m feeling pretty encouraged lately, for the first time in quite a while. I’ve gone out to breakfast or lunch several times in the last couple of weeks with friends, I’m planning a trip to Texas for a podcast convention and I’m even thinking about a vacation. That’s a vast change from being home, alone most of the time, for two years. But I think it’s important to remember that the pandemic isn’t over. There are new variations of the virus, the stealth Omicron version is still flaring up in different spots around the world and we still need to be careful. But it really is encouraging to feel like things are a little more normal.
Encourage means to help or stimulate an activity, state or view to develop. Encouragement is the act of giving someone support, hope or confidence. It’s critical to child development but is also important for optimal adult health. Encouragement can help with motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence and validation, and it’s not the same as praise.
I have always experienced a little discomfort over being praised. It concerned me for a while, as I wondered if it meant I had low self-esteem or low self-worth and therefore didn’t deserve the praise, but after reading The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White, I discovered that words of affirmation are simply not my form of feeling appreciated. Acts of service are, which definitely feels true, and so I thought that was that. But I came across an article on encouragement recently that really explained it well beyond feeling appreciated and it might be helpful for anyone who supervises employees or who has children or who really desires to support others in their endeavors.
Praise focuses on what someone else thinks and often includes a judgment. When someone says, “great job,” they’re expressing their judgment of you. I’m not saying it’s not kind of someone to share a positive judgment of you, but I’m wondering if it’s that underlying judgment that I’ve been somewhat aversive to.
Encouragement is non-judgmental but points out specific facts without evaluating them. Phrases like, “you really worked hard on that,” or “you have so much experience,” do not affect me the same way praise does. I appreciate someone noticing that I’ve worked long and hard and it doesn’t give me that slightly uncomfortable feeling that praise does.
As I was reading, I saw the immediate correlation with a growth mindset versus a fixed one. With a growth mindset, the focus is on effort more than outcome, while with a fixed mindset, it’s all about the outcome. And of course, the outcome is judged.
I’m not saying praise or appreciation aren’t important because they are. I’m just wondering if we need to be more mindful about using encouragement more than praise. Encouragement focuses on effort which builds a person’s pride in their own work. This type of encouragement teaches us to evaluate ourselves on our own merits. When we receive feedback about what we’re doing, we learn to evaluate ourselves without comparing our efforts and success to those of others.
For example, if you hear your boss tell a coworker, you did a fantastic job on that account, you might deduce that you must not have done a fantastic job because the boss didn’t say anything to you. On the other hand, if the boss tells your coworker, you really put in the effort to get up to speed on that account, it has nothing to do with you or your accounts so there’s no discouragement. I can see how beneficial this could be for children as well, reducing the comparison children could make when one child gets praised versus being encouraged regarding their efforts.
Genuine encouragement and appreciation spring from our own sense of gratitude. Nurturing our own sense of gratitude generates the recognition that we need other people, that they increase the quality of our lives and that they deserve recognition for what they contribute, big or small. When we are generous in offering praise and appreciation, it draws other people to us in a way that also reinforces our own sense of belonging, acceptance and self-worth.
We also need to learn to accept encouragement and appreciation from others, as well as give it. When we deny others the pleasure of encouraging us, we rob them of the opportunity to feel the sense of value that they experience by adding something positive into our lives. It is for that reason that I will work harder at genuinely accepting and appreciating praise, even if I prefer encouragement.
For encouragement to have its biggest impact, it needs to become a consistent part of how you engage other people. When you develop a consistent outlook on life that appreciates all the blessings that come by way of others, you are more generous, gracious and patient in the way you interact with others. All of your relationships will begin to prosper as a result.
So again, definitely praise others to show them that you appreciate them. But use encouraging phrases whenever you can like, I’m glad you’re here or you figured it out or you worked really hard or your input is always appreciated.
The word encourage has the word courage right in it. When we encourage someone, we’re helping them develop the courage or confidence to do something. That’s the majority of my job as a coach, to encourage my clients to achieve their goals. While I certainly praise their accomplishments, I spend much more time acknowledging their efforts. Which circles back to myself. I definitely respond more positively to encouragement and I think it’s because it gives me more space to fail. I’m not focused on the outcome of what I’m doing nearly as much as I am the effort I’m putting in. If all of my focus was on outcomes, I wouldn’t take risks, try new things or feel comfortable with experimenting.
Take some time to reflect on what makes you feel appreciated as well as what motivates you. If we’re in need of praise, and especially if we’re in need of constant praise, we’re limiting ourselves to producing what we think others want. It’s much more rewarding to produce what excites us, what we’re interested in and what we want to pursue. Of course, that may not be an option in every job, but hopefully by now you’re not living to work but working to live. Be open to encouragement to pursue your dreams beyond your job if you don’t have flexibility to do so within it.
What if we don’t have someone around to encourage us? Then we need to master self-encouragement, by focusing on our strengths, positive qualities, and skills instead of our weaknesses and limitations. That sounds a lot easier than it really is and that’s because we’re so hard on ourselves. Think about your self-talk when things are challenging or you’re feeling like you don’t have the skills or resources needed to get something done. Do you put yourself down? If so, focus on changing those negative thoughts to something like, “I’m doing the best I can,” or “I can’t control everything that’s happening, but I can control my response to what’s happening.” When you fail at something, encourage yourself through words like, “That didn’t work, but I learned a lot from it,” or “Now I know what not to do, so what’s another alternative?”
Whether encouraging others or ourselves, recognizing how we’re communicating is key to mindful communication. If our intention is to acknowledge someone for an accomplishment, praise may certainly be appropriate, but if we want to inspire or motivate others even more, encouragement may be a more powerful choice. And by empowering another person through encouragement, the effects will be much more long-lasting.
So I encourage you to mindfully reflect on the words you use, the intention behind the words and to monitor your own self-talk to make sure it’s encouraging instead of discouraging. During this time of massive transition, we could all use a little more encouragement.
Listen to the episode: