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  • Vicky Tan

Expressing appreciation

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Poster that reads, "Spread love".

There's something about the end of the year that makes me stop, reflect, and appreciate the people around me even more. I mean, I feel strongly about expressing appreciation all year round because I dislike that we live in a society where it's much easier to criticise than to encourage, to play it cool and act like nothing affects or excites us. But as the end of the year is a culturally-sanctioned time to wish people well, I was thinking even more of everyday ways to do so.

(Do I always express appreciation? No. I get tired and cranky sometimes. This post also serves as a reminder to myself that I'm doing my best and I can do better!)

I also wanted to go beyond the usual, "you're awesome/great/wonderful", "nice job", or in the case of children, "good girl/boy". Firstly, we use these phrases so much that they lose their meaning. It tells us very little about what we've done right. Secondly, we often feel uncomfortable with this kind of praise because it is effectively an evaluation. Anything that can be judged as "good" can easily be judged as "bad". Even when we are evaluated positively, it can be tempting to think: Are they just saying that because they're trying to make me feel better? Are they mistaken or lying? They don't know the whole story. I'm not really "good". What if I stuff up? Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead before they change their mind about me.

Receiving and expressing appreciation can be even harder under certain circumstances. For example, it can be harder if you have gone through trauma or other experiences that make it difficult to trust others. It could also be harder for cultural reasons - praising others may not be the done thing in your family or wider community.

So how to encourage people? I take a leaf from authors Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, Joanna Faber, and Julie King, who wrote a fantastic, down-to-earth series of parenting books based on "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk". Their tools for praise and appreciation of course focus on children, but I believe these are applicable to adult conversations as well. These communication tools are also supported by research - here's a good synthesis of research about the effects of praise on children's motivation by Jennifer Henderlong and Mark Lepper (2002), and it also briefly mentions similar effects on adults.

Describe what you notice

Hands painting in watercolours on paper.

A friend of mine just started an art course, and her teacher banned the students from using the words "awesome" or "good" when commenting on each other's work. Instead, they had to describe what they saw/noticed. My friend said this made a big difference; it opened up conversations as to why people drew what they did, how they thought, and left people feeling uplifted and understood. People felt that others really saw their artwork, and by extension who they were as people.

So, use your senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) to describe what's happening:

  • Instead of, "That's a beautiful picture!" You can say, "You used bold colours and lines, and it adds such a lively feeling."

  • Instead of, "Great job on the kitchen." You can say, "I see you did the dishes, the counter is clear, and the stove top is shiny - that would've taken a while."

  • Instead of, "Your talk went really well!" You can say, "The ideas were clear and I noticed that people were nodding and taking notes."

  • If you're not feeling wordy, you can say, "You did it!"

To bring it back to parenting, there is a helpful table in this article about encouraging children with child-specific examples.

Consider asking questions or starting a conversation instead of praising

I've noticed that people aren't very good at showing that they're curious about others! Instead, people usually are listening to think of what to say next in order to be entertaining, rather than listening in order to understand. Opening up conversations is a great way to show interest and appreciation for others and their achievements:

  • "Wow, tell me more about this!"

  • "How did you get the idea to do that?"

  • "This makes me think about X. What does it make you think about?"

  • "How did you feel?"

  • "I wonder what you're going to do/make next."

Describe the effect on yourself and others

This is helpful in moving away from judging someone's character or motivations, and towards the impact of their behaviour. (Note: This can also be handy in giving constructive feedback on others' behaviour, as it stays in the realm of reality and doesn't guess what people intended to do.)

  • Instead of, "You're so helpful." You can say, "You helped me fix my printer - now I can work much more easily."

  • Instead of, "You're such a good friend!" You can say, "I appreciate how you took the time to talk to me when I was feeling down, I felt really encouraged afterwards."

  • Instead of, "You're great with kids!" You can say, "The baby loves it when you make those funny faces - she has a big smile on her face."

Describe effort

The difficulty with praising someone's skills or innate characteristics is that it can backfire. Researcher and psychologist Carol Dweck studied the effects of evaluative praise on children, and her research generally shows that people tend to give up more quickly and were less willing to take on more challenging tasks when they were given evaluative praise (e.g., "That's a really good score, you must be smart at this").

Conversely, Dweck found that people work longer and harder at challenging tasks when their efforts are acknowledged (e.g., "That's a good score, you must have worked really hard"). She has labelled the latter a "growth mindset", a resilient state of mind where people believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Dweck talks about it here:

It is easy for people to brush off comments about themselves or their abilities, but describing their specific effort is not so easily taken away.

  • Instead of, "You're so talented at footy!" You can say, "I saw you marking your player over and over until you finally got the ball."

  • Instead of, "You're smart!" You can say, "You kept working on that problem until you figured it out!"

Describe progress

On mixing encouragement with constructive feedback, Faber and King (2017) write:

"One advantage of descriptive praise is that you can use it even when things aren't going particularly well, by pointing out what has been achieved so far. [...] We can point out progress in a way that feels supportive and genuine. Often pointing out one positive thing is more effective than pointing out ten negatives."

I think this is true not only for parents and children, but between couples and people with whom you need to maintain a good relationship. The following lines are useful if you don't need to provide corrective feedback (e.g., in situations where it's okay to let the person figure it out themselves):

  • Instead of pointing out what's wrong: "You talk over me when I haven't finished speaking and talk for ages about your problems." The person you're dealing with may be more motivated to improve if you "catch" them doing what you'd like them to do and point it out: "I was able to tell you my whole story, and it made me feel heard and closer to you."

Of course, we sometimes need to tell people what's wrong so that it can be fixed. It mostly works to just ask people to do what needs to be done: directly, simply, and without blame. To increase the chances that someone will take the corrective feedback graciously, it can be useful to notice the positive things before mentioning what needs to be done.

  • Instead of criticising an unfinished task: "You think you've finished cleaning the kitchen like you said you would? You never take out the bins, I always have to do it! And all the recycling is still piled up on the counter." You can notice what has been accomplished so far: "You've wiped down the counter and put away the groceries. All that needs doing is the taking out the bins and recycling - will you please do that?"


To end, Ilse Bendorf's poem "Catch a Body" highlights the need to express appreciation more because it enables us to connect to others:

Salinger, I’m sorry, but “Don’t ever tell

anybody anything” is a string of words

I would like to wrap up in canvas and sink to the bottom of the Hudson, or extract by laser from the ribcage of all of us who ever believed it, who felt afraid to miss someone, to be the last one standing. “Tell everyone everything” is not exactly right, but I do believe that if your mother looks radiant in violet you should tell her, or when a juvenile sparrow thrashes its wings in dustpiles and reminds you of a lover’s eyelashes, you should say so. We are islands all of us, but we are also boats, our secrets flares, pyrotechnic devices by which we signal there’s someone in here we’re still alive! So maybe it’s, “don’t be afraid.” We can rewrite Icarus, flame-resistant feathers, wax that won’t melt, I mean it, I’ll draw up a prototype right now, that burning ball of orange won’t stop us, it’ll be everything we dream the morning after, even if we fall into the sea—we are boats, remember? We are pirates. We move in nautical miles. Each other’s anchors, each other’s buoys, the rocket’s red, already the world entire.

I hope you have a peaceful holiday season, and may there be times of both giving and receiving appreciation. See you in 2018!

#communicationskills #interpersonalskills #relationships #psychology #mentalhealth #parenting

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