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The Secret of Powerful Praise

The Secret of Powerful Praise

Sitting in the high school hallway absorbed in a book, I hadn’t noticed my science teacher standing over me. It wasn’t until I reached for my highlighter again that he remarked, “You know, Nicole… when you highlight everything, you’re really not highlighting anything at all.”

It took me a long time to realize what he meant. In the last 10 years, though, I’ve learned that lesson applies to much more than just good books.

In our culture today, we continue to invent new ways of highlighting mediocrity. We have graduations for almost every grade level, we give trophies to all the children and refuse to keep score, we create an endless parade of adoration and awards to ensure that everyone knows how wonderful they are. We treat everyone like a special little snowflake…

… and then we wonder why nobody really feels special at all.

This is the great paradox of our society. We spend more and more time telling everyone that they are awesome, so everyone spends less and less time believing it.

The solution to our self-esteem crisis isn’t more praise, it’s better praise. Instead of spewing empty platitudes about how wonderful everyone is, powerful praise statements identify and label an individual’s best qualities. These statements are sincere, significant and specific – and they must be used sparingly to retain their power.

Powerful praise is sincere.

By definition, sincere means “the quality of being free from pretense, deceit, or hypocrisy.” If you are not sincere, you are lying or manipulating.

Unfortunately, even the appearance of insincerity can be disastrous. There are many ways that our praise may appear insincere. For example: When we praise someone for something they find easy, they may feel mocked and wonder why we are making such a big deal out of something so simple. Especially if our speech is sometimes stained with sarcasm, the recipient may question our sincerity and wonder if they should feel better or belittled because of our statement.

“To prevent the appearance of insincerity, avoid frequent, effusive praise. And avoid praise that is sweeping or general. Kids are more likely to doubt it.” –Gwen Dewar, Ph.D

Remember, an insincere comment will always do more harm than good to the heart. Powerful praise requires heartfelt emotion. If you don’t really mean it, don’t say it.

Powerful praise is significant.

Reserve powerful praise statements for significant accomplishments and achievements that are within the recipient’s control. For example, an athlete doesn’t have total control of the outcome of the game but does have control over his own behavior, performance and improvement. We empower, encourage and motivate the recipient of our praise when we acknowledge their effort and praise them for good choices or exceptional effort they’ve made.

Powerful praise is specific.

Powerful praise contains a compliment and an example, so it seems more trustworthy and is more difficult to deny or deflect. Anyone who has ever answered a compliment with the statement “Thank you, but…” will understand how easy it is to deflect or disbelieve a compliment.

People, especially parents, have a tendency to be very specific with their criticism and very vague with their praise. If you’ve ever told a child that he’s clumsy for dropping the dishes, lazy for refusing to do her chores, or irresponsible for losing something, then you’ve given specific criticism.

Our praise should be at least as specific as our criticism. Giving specific, sincere praise to ourselves and each other can counteract the negative labels we so easily acquire in this world. This is especially true for children, who need to build a vocabulary of positive traits, such as creative, smart or helpful, to help them balance the negativity they are so often exposed to.

Here are some examples of powerful praise that I’ve used recently:

Instead of this…I said this…
“You are a really great reader!” (to my son who has struggled with reading)“You are becoming a really great reader. You’ve started reading a lot faster since you memorized those sight words!”
“You are an incredible artist!” (to my five-year-old who loves to create art)“You’re a very creative artist. I really like the way you used   all the different colors in your drawing today.”
“You’re a good singer!” (to my four-year-old who sings constantly)“I love it when you sing. You were very helpful when you sang your little brother to sleep this afternoon.”
“You are so smart!” (to my three-year-old who is leaning his letters)“You are a good learner. I’m really impressed that you learned two new letters and their sounds this week.”

“You can change your world by changing your words…”
Joel Osteen

It takes practice to remember and master this skill, but it’s worth the effort to ensure that your words stand out and make a difference in the lives of those you compliment. Whether it’s your child or a bummed out best friend, powerful praise can make a huge difference in the world around you. Just remember: make it sincere, significant, and specific.