I’ve always been awkward about praise. Do I try to make it a joke? How do I make it seem like I’m not trying to butter them up?
Recently I read an excellent parenting book “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk” that laid out a formula for giving praise. It’s so counter-intuitive that at first I was skeptical it would actually work. Upon trying it out with kids, and especially with adults, over the past few months, I can tell you that it works like magic. Every time.
Step 1: Describe in detail
The first step is to describe the praiseworthy act in as much detail as you can. Be vivid here, calling out the parts that stand out.
“That was a tough email that you had to write. There were many moving parts and emotional people on the chain. While holding your ground, you expressed warmth and made it clear that you are doing everything you can to be accommodating.”
“You seemed so comfortable speaking up there. It looked like you were just having a casual chat with a few hundred people. I wasn’t sure if you had memorized your speech or were speaking off the cuff.”
“The team couldn’t get enough of your cookies today. They looked professionally made, from the powdered sugar on top to how neatly they were shaped, but you could tell that they were home-made from how they tasted.”
Step 2: Share how it makes you feel
Go beyond “happy” and “proud.” Dig deep and convey the essence of the emotions that urged you to praise in the first place. Paint a picture. This is the time to whip out those sappy poetry skills you honed in high school.
“When you’re around, I can’t help but smile. You bring a warmth into the office that makes me excited to come in to work every day.”
“Every time I ask you to do something, it feels like I have superpowers because I know that it’ll get done lightning fast, and better than I could’ve done it myself.”
“Talking to you just makes me feel safe and calm, and like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
Step 3: Don’t evaluate
Did you notice that nowhere in Step 1 or Step 2 did we tell them that they did a “good job?” That’s because any sort of value judgement we throw onto someone feels hollow. Instead of basking in the compliment, the objects of our praise instead question us and themselves. Was it really a good job? Why do they think that? How would they know anyways? Are they just being nice? Should I say “thanks” or just shrug it off to be modest?
Step 3 is harder than it sounds because “well done” and “nice job” are second nature to us. Fight the urge!
Step 4: Step back and watch the magic
Now it’s time for you to shut up. If you were successful in Steps 1, 2 and 3, there’s nothing left for you do to but watch the magic unfold.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that nowhere in Steps 1–3 have we actually praised anyone. Instead, we’ve described and shared our feelings. In fact, Step 3 makes it explicit that we must not give a positive evaluation.
So when do we actually get around to the praising? That’s the trick: you don’t. If you set it up correctly, they have absolutely no choice but to praise themselves. Sometimes they do it aloud. Sometimes they do it in their heads. But they always do it.
Let’s imagine a mom saying, “You call your grandparents every single week. They love talking to you so much, that they actually brag to their friends about how often they talk to you. It makes me feel warm inside that you care so much about your family.”
The child would be forced to reply with something like, “Well, I really do care about my family. It’s super important to me that we’re close, and the way to stay close is by making an effort.” Internally, he’d be thinking, yeah, I really I am a good grandson and I make my mom proud.
Imagine saying to your math teacher, “At the beginning of class, I was really confused about matrices. However, you were able to see the lack of understanding in my face and made a point of coming over to ask me if I had a question. Your explanation immediately cleared it up for me. When you do things like that, it makes me feel like it’s impossible for me to get lost in your class, like you’re really looking out for me, and that I’m safe here.”
She would reply with, “I don’t know how I knew, but I could just tell there something off with you from the moment you walked in. I’m really glad I acted on my intuition. I’m glad that you know I have your back in class, because I really do.” And internally, she’d think, I make a big difference in kids’ lives, and they appreciate me, and be awash in positive mental chemicals.
Seem too good to be true? Just wait till you try it.
One final note: don’t be scared to share this method with those that you’re praising. Even when people are expecting to be praised this way, they usually don’t even notice it’s happening. That’s because there’s nothing manipulative in this method at all. It simply tells you to describe the act and share your feelings. These are the most authentic forms of praise (beyond mimicry) you can give to a person.