There is a popular parenting theory going around at the moment that says you should always say 6 positive things to kids for every negative one. It’s a nice idea, but one that’s pretty difficult to achieve in the hurly burly of every day life. It’s much easier to grump about something they are (or are not) doing, than to think of 6 positive things to say. An easier technique is the “feedback sandwich,” where you say a positive thing, a negative, and then a positive. This is a common teaching strategy.
Dealing with young kids you might say “I love the robot you built, but it really bugs me when you don’t clean up the mess you make. The robot’s great – it looks very lifelike.” It’s a neat way of making sure that they don’t get defensive, and means your point is more likely to get across. It also means they don’t get ground down by incessant negativity.
Most people understand the need to be positive with kids, even if we don’t always apply it. But I think we sometimes forget the need to be positive with each other. Adults need praise, positivity and encouragement just as much as small people (sometimes more!), yet we don’t seem to be very good at it, as a society. We have a tendency to be stand-offish, reserved and cautious. We leap to criticism, (“this steak isn’t rare!” “You’re late!” “This isn’t good enough!” ) but find it harder to compliment.
Praise can be difficult to accept graciously. It’s hard to know what to say when someone compliments you, and it’s often easier to duck the praise or be self-deprecating than to agree with it and risk looking smug. But perhaps that’s because we don’t get enough practice.
Sometimes we don’t praise because we are afraid of being misinterpreted – especially if we’re praising someone of the opposite sex. I can’t help feeling that it’s worth the risk, though. In the chaos of increasingly busy, hard-working lives, we get used to telling each other what’s wrong, and taking for granted the bits that are right.
The interesting thing is that praising others can give you a bigger lift than being praised yourself. That feedback mechanism that happens when you make someone else smile causes real emotional and physiological changes in your own body, that can even impact on your state of health.
It’s odd, then, that praising people can feel as though you are taking an emotional risk. It’s making a more personal connection, even if you are just complimenting the barista in your local cafe. It’s exposing your feelings, and that can be a confronting thing to do.
It’s a bit like abseiling – that first step’s a doozy. Stepping over the cliff is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but if you can bring yourself to make that leap of faith, the trip down the cliff face may be the ride of your life.
One of the interesting side effects of writing has been that I can praise people remotely – write positive things about them from the safety of my computer. It’s much easier to expose your feelings without looking someone in the eye! But I’ll then send them a link to the article, or print it out for them, and I have become utterly hooked on their reactions, to the extent that I now do it in real life, too.
When having lunch with a friend gives me a real boost, I’ll tell them so. When a barista makes a beautiful fern pattern in my latte, I comment on it. It gives me a real buzz. It’s the perfect win-win situation. By making others feel good, I get a powerful lift myself. Next time you’re feeling flat, give it a try. Say something nice to someone else and see what happens.
Genuine and specific compliments are the most powerful. And when someone does something that you appreciate, take that small risk and appreciate it out loud. The results might surprise you.