Most people are better at criticising than encouraging. I spent years learning how to encourage instead of put down. At first, it was hard to find the right words, apart from a vague “well done”. Slowly, I learnt how to encourage in a smarter and more effective way.
How to encourage the SMART way
S – Specific
While any praise feels good, there is a greater impact when the person knows what exactly he did well. Consider the difference between being vague and being specific in the following examples:
Vague: “You did well on that project.”
Specific: “You chose a really catchy name for that project. I can’t get it out of my mind.”
Vague: “Your teacher says you’re a good student.”
Specific: “Your teacher says she’s very happy that you always hand in your work on time.”
Vague: “I’m so glad I’m married to you.”
Specific: “I’m so proud to be your wife because you open the door for me every time, even after 10 years of marriage.”
M – Measurable
Even if the person knows what exactly he did well, he may not realise why this is so important to you. Letting him know the impact on you in measurable terms will make your praise meaningful.
“You chose a really catchy name for that project. I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ll be sure to remember it next time I need inspiration for my own projects.”
“Your teacher says she’s very happy that you always hand in your work on time. This saves her the trouble of having to remind you and gives her ample time to go through your assignments in detail.”
“I’m so proud to be your wife because you open the door for me every time, even after 10 years of marriage. When my friends see this and give me envious looks, I feel like the luckiest woman in the world.”
A – Action
When you praise a person’s character, he may get a warm fuzzy feeling but there’s not much he can do after that. When you praise an action instead, he can now choose to repeat that action.
Who: “You are a valuable employee.”
What: “You chose a catchy name for that project.”
Who: “You are such a good student.”
What: “You hand in your work on time.”
Who: “You are the world’s best husband.”
What: “You’re the best for opening doors for me.”
R – Relevant
We sometimes give encouragement that seems to go nowhere. I’m often guilty of this, raving about a friend’s new shoes when I know her current goal is to make more friends. Relevant encouragement is more helpful to that person by nudging her in the direction she wants to go rather than distracting her from it.
Goal: Get a promotion at work.
Irrelevant: “You chose a really catchy name for that project. You should consider a career in advertising.”
Relevant: “You chose a really catchy name for that project. I bet the bosses will pay attention when you present it at next week’s meeting.”
Goal: Improve grades in school.
Irrelevant: “It’s great that you hand in your work on time because it gives you more time to play once the work is done.”
Relevant: “It’s great that you hand in your work on time because planning ahead allows you time to plan and produce quality work which can get better results.”
Goal: Spending more time with your spouse
Irrelevant: “When you open doors for me, I feel like the luckiest woman in the world because my friends all envy me.”
Relevant: “When you open doors for me, it makes me proud to be with you and I miss you even more when you’re not around.”
T – Timely
Books on dog training say that the best time to give a dog a biscuit is when it has just done something you want it to do. If you give the biscuit later, it won’t connect the reward to the action and you would have failed in reinforcing the behaviour you want. Children know this – they ask for their promised reward as soon as they’ve performed the deed.
The best time to give encouragement for an action is when the person is still experiencing emotion connected to the action. Your timely encouragement can add to that emotion and increase the person’s motivation to repeat the action.
Emotions from an action can last from a few seconds to a few days. The best time to offer encouragement is within minutes of the person performing the action. If this is not possible, anything within the next few days still has a chance of having an impact.
How to encourage SMART-ly
Those of us not naturally gifted at encouragement will simply have to practise. I started by just thinking encouraging thoughts about others, because I couldn’t say the words without tripping over them. Eventually it became easier to verbalise meaningful encouragement, though obviously I’m still working on it.
And if you can’t figure out how to give encouragement the SMART way, just relax. A “well done” is better than nothing, and even a smile can make a person’s day.