I told her, “I’m so proud of you.” She didn’t respond with a thank you. She responded with, “What about me are you proud of?”
And even though I could go on for days with the list of things about my kid that makes me proud, I was a little stunned by her response. You mean, you want specifics?
Have you ever noticed when you are criticized, the criticism is usually pointed or specific? You don’t usually get a “you are terrible at your job” or “you are a bad person.” You get all the details that someone has thought about – the argument to prove their point. These are the things I see that you are doing poorly. This is the list of your weaknesses. This is the list of the reasons why you are driving me nuts right now.
Believe me, I get it. When I am frustrated with my kids, I nitpick with the best of them. “Look, you left this SOCK ON THE FLOOR! Who does that? Who leaves ONE SOCK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR!” And then I go on to list the many grievances I have against their ability to clean.
And yet, when it comes to encouragement, we are resigned to platitudes and simplicity. “Hey, good job on that presentation” or “You are a nice person.” Granted, those compliments are nice to hear, but generally they leave the hearer with nothing to build on – nothing to grasp onto when they are feeling inferior or discouraged. Because we are all our own worst critics and generally we don’t need someone to join the chorus of the words swirling in our own minds. We need words that help build our emotional and mental muscle – words that strengthen and make us want to be stronger. Criticism rarely does that.
I have heard – even though it’s not obvious by my physique – that when you build muscle, fat burns faster. Am I right here? So, when you give more strength to the things that are working well, there is less of the stuff that doesn’t work. Now, I’m no exercise physiologist or psychologist or anything like that – but it seems that the same would be true for our minds. I think the Gallup organization would agree (go buy Strengthsfinder 2.0 STAT). If we encourage each other in our strengths – if we tell each other specifics about those strengths – we will more likely help each other achieve greater things than if we criticize the weaknesses.
When I tell my kid, “I’m proud of you” but don’t back it up with specifics, it is easy for her to shrug it off and think I’m just saying it because I’m her mom. But, if I follow it up with, “I have noticed that you are quick to help others” or “you’ve really been working hard in math and you are getting better every day” – it encourages her to keep doing those specific things. So when she is struggling in spelling, I don’t necessarily have to point that out (she would already be aware), but she can remember that I told her that she was getting better at math by practicing. I can encourage her to do better in spelling simply by encouraging her in something else that she’s doing well.
Instead of, “You are a nice person,” I can tell someone that I have noticed that they always let others go ahead of them in line or that they are so good about giving a warm smile to everyone they see. Instead of, “that was a good presentation,” I can tell the person how I loved how they connected with people or that they were good at telling stories to back up their point. It’s the specifics that take a compliment a step further to become true encouragement. The specifics are the words that instill courage.
I want to be the kind of person that looks for the strengths in others – not their weaknesses. I want to take the time to notice the little nuances and details about them that make them who they are – because we are all strong in different ways. I want to be brave enough to say to someone that I have noticed their gifts and build their emotional and mental muscle. Because, let’s face it, we all feel pretty beat down most days. We all feel like failures at one point or another. But, when we have something – even just one little thing – that we feel pretty good about, well, we can start to feel like maybe, just maybe, we can start to build some muscle there. And when that muscle starts building, the fat starts to burn on it’s own.
Today, I hope you will encourage someone in very specific ways. You can do it in person or in a note. However you decide to encourage someone, I promise you, YOU will end up encouraged, too. Words matter. Use them well.