Parents, teachers, and managers – “helping persons” frequently ask how to motivate others more effectively. The philosophy and skill of encouragement are a means both of increasing motivation and of combating feelings of inadequacy.
Encouragement communicates trust, respect, and belief. Many psychologists contend that there are only two basic human emotions: love and fear. Encouragement communicates caring and movement toward others—love, whereas discouragement results in lowered self-esteem and alienation from others—fear. Yet, despite the intention to be encouraging, all too often helping persons are, in fact, discouraging in their communications with others. An example is the manager or parent who “lets things go” as long as they are going well and who comments only when things go wrong.
A crucial beginning to being a more encouraging person is to become more aware of and to eliminate discouraging messages. The five telltale signs that a message is discouraging are these:
- The “Red-Pencil” Effect, Circling the Mistakes of Others. A frequent consequence of such “constructive criticism” is that the recipient of the message becomes preoccupied with his or her mistakes.
- The Vertical Plane of Interaction. The vertical plane is characterized by “oneupmanship.” The horizontal plane, in contrast, is characterized by equality and a mutual respect for all; classification of people as superior or inferior and sexual, racial, and religious prejudice do not exist on this level.
- Overperfectionism. The unrealistic notion that people should not make mistakes leads them to become overly critical of themselves and to want to discover that others are worse. If people cannot make peace with themselves, they never will make peace with others.
- Clinging to Old Patterns. A primary principle of child psychology is that children are good observers but poor interpreters. When they observe death, many children, being egocentric at the time, conclude that they killed the person. Many such irrational decisions and conclusions are habits that are held over from the past. By means of a systematic lifestyle assessment, a counselor often gently confronts a client by noting, “Now that you are not a child anymore, perhaps you would like to look at some things differently.” Reinforcing a static philosophy (“You’ve always been that way; you’re not going to change”) can actually inhibit change or growth.
- Misused Psychological Tests. For people who doubt their own abilities, an “objective, scientific” test can be the ultimate discourager. Such tests often “label” people and the people then act in accordance with the labels. Although all tests obviously are not harmful, it is wise to remember that we build on strengths, not weaknesses. Thus, it is important to focus on people’s assets whenever possible.
The goal is not to cease all discouragement completely; indeed, all helping persons at times need to confront others. The goal is to combine such confrontation with encouragement as a means of maximizing the ability to impact others positively. The proper use of encouragement involves the following:
- Valuing individuals as they are, not as their reputations indicate or as one hopes they will be. Believing in individuals as good and worthwhile will facilitate acting toward them in this manner.
- Having faith in the abilities of others. This enables the helper to win confidence while building the self-respect of the other person.
- Showing faith in others. This will help them to believe in themselves.
- Giving recognition for effort as well as for a job well done.
- Using a group to help the person to develop. This makes practical use of the assumption that, for social beings, the need to belong is basic.
- Integrating the group so that the individual can discover his or her place and begin working positively from that point.
- Planning for success and assisting in the development of skills that are sequentially and psychologically paced.
- Identifying and focusing on strengths and assets rather than on mistakes.
- Using the interests of the individual in order to motivate learning and instruction.
In addition here are ten specific “words of encouragement”:
- “You do a good job of . . . .” People should be encouraged when they do not expect encouragement, when they are not asking for it. It is possible to point out some useful act or contribution of everyone. Even a comment about something that may seem small and insignificant could have an important positive impact.
- “You have improved in. . . .” Growth and improvement are things we should expect from all. If any progress is noted, there is less chance of discouragement and individuals usually will continue to try.
- “We like (enjoy) you, but we don’t like what you do.” People frequently feel disliked after having made mistakes or after misbehaving. A person, especially a child, should never think that he or she is not liked. Rather, it is important to distinguish between the individual and his or her behavior, between the act and the actor.
- “You can help me (us, the others) by . . . .” To feel useful and helpful is important to everyone. Most people need only to be given the opportunity.
- “Let’s try it together.” People who think that they have to do things perfectly often are afraid to attempt something new for fear of making mistakes or failing.
- “So you made a mistake; now what can you learn from it?” There is nothing that can be done about what has happened, but a person always can do something about the future. Mistakes can teach a great deal, especially if people do not feel embarrassed for erring.
- “You would like us to think that you can’t do it, but we think that you can.” This approach can be used when people say (or convey the impression) that something is too difficult for them and they hesitate even to try. A person who tries and fails can be complimented for having the courage to try. One’s expectations should be consistent with his or her ability and maturity.
- “Keep trying; don’t give up.” When someone is trying but not meeting with much success, a comment like this can be helpful.
- “I am sure that you can straighten this out (solve this problem); but if you need any help, you know where you can find me.” Express confidence that others are able to and will resolve their own conflicts, if given a chance.
- “I can understand how you feel, but I’m sure that you will be able to handle it.” Sympathizing with the other person seldom helps because it suggests that life has been unfair. Empathizing (understanding the situation) and believing in the person’s ability to adjust to the situation are of much greater help.
“Giving positive invitations” is another way to describe the process of encouragement. Such invitations help to increase people’s self-confidence by at least four different methods:
- Self-affirmation—a renewed appreciation of one’s personal strengths, motivators, values, and peak experiences;
- Self-determination—being able to take responsibility for one’s life without blaming others;
- Self-motivation—setting goals and taking the action necessary to reach those goals by integrating one’s emotions and intellect with one’s body; and
- Increased empathic regard for others.
Many people’s feelings of inadequacy can be overcome by prolonged exposure to positive affirmation. Of course, the process of encouragement may take longer with some people than with others. One may be tempted to admit defeat and discouragement much too soon. An optimistic rather than a pessimistic attitude and a proactive rather than a reactive affirmation of the basic worth of all people can help anyone to be a more effective “helper.” Encouragement can assist people in rediscovering their values and joys, in identifying their strengths instead of dwelling on their mistakes, in challenging and changing old patterns, and in having the courage to be imperfect!