Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lavish in praise

I make it a point to reinforce others by highlighting the good things about them. In doing so, I hope to make their days a little brighter and bring out the best in them. But, as usual, there exists a gap between idealism and practical reality. I am a man of few words, which usually means I can stay out of trouble, but I've found that more words are usually better when giving quality encouragement.

For example, I could say, "I like your painting."

What actually goes through my head when I'm thinking that up is, "I like your use of high contrast. I know you went out of your comfort zone here since low contrast colors are your usual fare, and this turned out well. I noticed the attention to detail you put in the left section where the fence is. How did you manage to pull off those shadows?"

But I somehow can't put it into words quickly enough.

Or, I could tell someone, "You don't have to worry. You have what it takes to succeed." If my buddy is down in the dumps and grasping desperately at any reinforcement possible, this will probably make him feel better.

But it's so much more satisfying to hear, "Look, you've got what it takes to succeed. I've seen your analytical and problem-solving skill when I was taking classes with you. I noticed that you broke things down into manageable pieces instead of tackling big impossible problems all at once. You may think your attention to detail is nothing special, but once you get out there you're going to find that it's really a rare quality. And I know you're very ambitious and very driven. You're just feeling a little apprehensive because this is a new situation. If you really want me to name off one thing you need to improve on, it's relaxing under new situations."

Expounding upon the details does two things: it validates your sincerity, and deepens the sense of encouragement you impart upon the other person.

If you absolutely can't think of more to say, you're probably not being sincere. I questioned my own sincerity many times, but at this point I'm sure that the problem is usually that I'm a little rusty getting words out since I'm writing code all day. For me, having to talk about something means I have to know it pretty deeply and pretty well.

I have a theory about why I get a deeper sense of encouragement when people go into details about my good qualities. It gives me many hooks to latch onto, little things that I can evaluate as true or false. Am I really good at this? Wow, she thinks I'm good at handling people? I know I wasn't born like that — in fact I am pretty socially awkward — but it's good that I come off as a natural. The more hooks there are that sound true enough, the more thorough and more solid is my self-esteem after a friend's pick-me-up.