Five ways to make praise effective

We know that when people are given praise for their efforts, they do tend to feel better, and do better too. If you aren’t getting those results, it may be that the way in which you give praise may be in need some fine tuning.

I really try to be an upbeat, positive mom. Not like my own mother who did nothing but criticize me. I thought I was doing OK until I heard one of my kids say to the other, that it didn’t matter if she did a good job or not because I don’t really care, “She’s happy with anything” is what he said.

I do care though! I thought that if I praised my kids they would try to do well, not just get by with the least possible.

It occurred to me that the same thing was happening at my work. The people I supervise just do the least possible, even though I give them lots of praise for their work. I thought that praise was supposed to get people to do more and better. Clearly I’m doing something wrong. Help!

You have the right idea.  We know that when people are given praise for their efforts, they do tend to feel better, and do better too.  If you aren’t getting those results, it may be that the way in which you give praise may be in need some fine tuning.  Let’s look at five things to do to make praise effective.

1. Be specific. It is important to be clear about what it is you are praising.  Saying “good job” is not specific.  It does not really let the person know what behaviour you appreciate, or want to encourage.  “Jen, it’s terrific the way you got your clothes off the floor and into the laundry basket”, gives clear information.  It is more likely that you will find clothes in the laundry basket more often saying that.

2. Praise effort, not intelligence. Saying “You’re so smart” is far less effective than saying “ Amy I can see that you really understood how to solve that problem”.  You’re so smart” is a kind of judgment on a person.  It may feel good for a moment, but it can lead to a reluctance to try new things, or worry and fear that one will not be as well liked if they don’t know something at another time, feeling that they have to now live up to the “smart” judgment at all times.  No one can do that, and certainly not a child.

3. Say the person’s name. It makes a difference.

4. Be sincere. Insincerity stinks and most kids can smell it a mile away.  Adults, too.  If you are going to make the effort to give someone praise, be sure that you really mean it.  Let’s say that your child brings you a picture that they have made and you don’t really like it.  Instead of praising the whole picture without sincerity, focus instead on an aspect of the picture that you really like and can sincerely praise.  For example, how about, “Wow!  Jody, I sure do like the colors that are that picture.”

5. Reinforce intermittently. Rather than praise a thing one time, and than never again, remember to, from time to time, to praise that same thing.  Let’s use the clothes in the laundry basket example from above.  Let’s say that the routine is that weekly that a child has to clean up his/her room.  You could praise the clothes in the basket one week, then the next week, then not again for 3 weeks, then two weeks after that.  This intermittent reinforcement, after the initial praise, has been shown to be really, really effective.

These principles work for adults as well.  So, it may be interesting to notice when you do praise someone, the number of these elements the praise contains.  The more elements they contain, the more you should see the positive results of your own efforts in both your children and workmates.

If you would like to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at askpacific@shaw.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by the registered clinical counsellors at Pacific Therapy & Consulting: Nancy Bock, Diane Davies, Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Karen Turner. It appears every second Friday.