How do you give genuine praise? How do you express praise?
We all want to praise others, but sometimes it seems extremely difficult to do so. Which is why we often resort to something like “great job” or “that's cool: And Facebook has trained us to just “like” everything. Which means that the person who you're praising rarely feels the impact of that praise.
Let's look at how to go about praising someone, and especially how to give praise when you don't have much to say.
My mother in law prides herself on her cooking.
When she makes a dish, she'll turn to me and ask, “How was it?” Even as she's asking the question, she knows that there's something off. If the dish is spectacular, I will go on endlessly about how tasty it is.
I'll describe how it tastes, how I feel, and there's no doubt that the food has pushed my greed button for the day. However, when it's not quite as good as it should be, I'll stay quiet.
The opposite of praise doesn't have to be criticism; it can just be silence.
Yet, in most instances, silence is not just creepy, but unhelpful. Plus, in our desire to be useful, we tend to give advice, slipping needlessly into criticism. Part of the reason why we're critical, is because we haven't quite learned how to praise someone.
It feels awkward, especially if the “dish is not up to standard”. Yet, there's a way to praise others. There's also a very good reason why you should praise someone. We all remember extreme insults, because they're specific in their detail. That “detail”, by the way, is our first clue to how we need to praise.
Let's jump into the world of praise and cover three aspects:
1- The importance of detail—and the duration.
2- How to praise when asked for criticism.
3- How to ferret out praise, when there's nothing much to praise.
1) The importance of detail—and the duration.
I've been photographing people at work in New Zealand for a few years. As you'd expect, if you do a good job, people compliment you—but never seem to talk much about your work.
In doing so, what they lose out is the detail. The only way to understand this concept entirely is to read what Sarah, the owner of a bakery, sent me after I photographed the staff at work.
Here we go! Ready to read?
I am so enjoying your photographs. You capture movement in a rare way. To see the essence of someone's movement in a still like that is soooo cool.
We don't really have a word for it in English, but in Japanese martial arts, they talk about a person's taijutsu, which is more than how they move when they fight – it is how they move through life and how they look at life and everything. That's what I see in your photos. I hope you come back soon!
Now, let's compare that comment with most of the other praise I've received.
As you'd expect, most of the other people would have said something like “cool photos”, “I love the way you work”, and “Oh, that was very nice”.You can spot the difference between what Sarah wrote and all the other comments I've received.
It's not that I can't remember getting praise. It's just that I can't remember the details. And if you and I can't remember details, it's like a ship at night. You know there's something out there in the dark, but you can't experience it in all its glory.
When you add detail to praise, the other person lights up with their own story
Take, for instance, a jam that someone gave me a few days ago. I wrote to him saying: I love the chilli jam. The colour is so arresting.
I had this conversation on chat, and by the time I finished the sentence, he was already telling me a story. “It's capsicum and chilli,” he said to me. “I made another batch but cooked it overnight in the slow cooker, and it lost all that colour.
He said, “I use red capsicums and red chillies, and I think it was 3:1 capsicum to chilli by weight. He also told me how he'd eliminate many of the seeds. “Some seeds make the cut, but most are discarded—and my hands stung for days. It was crazy! I would get a few hours of relief, and my hands would flare up again.
It didn't take much to get him going down the track of telling me what he'd done to get that rich colour.
I still hadn't talked to him about the taste, which I followed up with later. However, staying on one point matters. When Sarah from the bakery stayed on “how I was getting movement in my photos”, I realised something I had not seen in my work before.
If, on the other hand, I had been aware, it would have reinforced the fact that I was doing something correctly or well. The same concept applied to the discussion of the colour of the jam.
You don't know it, but he'd given me three jars of different jams. If I'd tried to praise all three jams, there wouldn't be enough detail. I'd have never learned how his hands stung for days or that he didn't make twenty jars but just six—one of which he gave me.
When you're praising someone, the detail is essential. Granted, a quick “like” often acknowledges the person's work. A “wow” or “that was cool” all suggests that you appreciate what you're experiencing.
However, the details are what people want to hear. They want to relive what they've gone through to design their living room, bake a cake, but even the details on a single photo matter.
With detail, duration usually follows.
It sounds like duration is a separate concept, but it's not. While picking on a single point is great, you want that point to linger. If you're writing to someone, write five or six lines. Maybe even a little over a paragraph.
If you're chatting with someone or in front of them, dig deeper into that point. You want that feeling to linger, and it does. And you know you've gone about it the right way because the other person will tell you things that almost no one else knows. They will start to tell you a story with the ups and downs. Details get detail back.
If you say “cool”, the other person's comment is almost as brief.
Their answer is “Thanks”. To me, that feels like a thud. It's there one moment, and it's gone. Go for detail and duration instead. And wait for the story.
However, there are times when we're called to give an appraisal. You have to bite your lip because the person is asking you to give “constructive criticism” but wants praise.
It's a problem we all face when talking to friends, partners or even kids. The usual answer to this question is to make a sandwich of praise. Say a good thing, a not-so-good thing, and another good thing.
While that idea is pretty sound, it's a problem when you have only one good thing to say and three or even five not-so-good comments to make.
What do we do? Let's find out.
2- How to praise when asked for criticism.
Why is the criticism sandwich so frequently quoted?
The biggest reason is that it seems to soften the blow, yet it doesn't. There are two reasons why it doesn't work as well as most people think. When you're being critical, the other person will already be on the defensive. They want to hear what's wrong but prefer not to get any critical appraisal.
Hence, the main factor is either balance or imbalance.
Imbalance sounds a lot like the criticism sandwich. You say two good things, and it's one sad little thing in the middle. However, if you have three bad things to say, that sandwich quickly turns rancid.
The key is to ensure that if you have three not-so-good things to say, you also have three points of effusive praise. The balance—or imbalance—is all about never having more criticism than praise. Hence, it's more a factor of ratios. One part criticism = one part praise. Five parts criticism = five parts praise.
Of course, you can overdo the praise.
Hence, sticking to one part of criticism and one part of praise is probably the better, newer, tastier sandwich. If you use the concept of detail, you can go deeper into a single point where things went wrong and then back it up with the point where the person did very well.
The timing matters
When you go blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, it's almost guaranteed that the person will remember the last thing you said. Hence, giving the feedback—which isn't very good—prepares the person for even more feedback.
Just when that balloon is deflating, you pop in with very effusive praise. You pick a single point and go into extreme detail.
But what about the other points of criticism?
They don't want to hear it. Well, most people don't. There are exceptions. If you do a course with us, you are expected to give feedback on several points. It's not unusual for clients to provide almost 500 words of feedback.
When such a critical appraisal is underlined, there's no need to hold back. However, in most cases, people want praise. They just want praise. They really want praise. If you don't get it, remember that they want praise.
The more you praise them, the more feedback they'll seek
They see you as fair, as balanced. They will become the exceptions once they realise you're not out to get them. They will want you to give them feedback on a number of points. They will even list the points they think they need to fix and want you to help them through.
There's something selfish about that level of feedback, too. They know you're fair in your appraisal and give praise in abundance. Once the glitches are fixed, they know they can bask in the praise that's no doubt coming their way. When people come to you for feedback often, it means you're praising them often.
Think about that line for a while.
Then, balance or imbalance your praise accordingly. Nonetheless, there are times when there's nothing much to praise. The people who are just starting or are doing the crappiest job ever (think of a three-year-old drawing a house and family) need the most praise of all.
What do you do when it's more than apparent that people are not quite unto the mark?
3- How to ferret out praise, when there's nothing much to praise.
Let's say you go to the cafe every day. You order your coffee, it comes to the table, and you savour it. You're not one of those coffee drinkers who just want a hot drink. You want the coffee to be perfect. Just the right acidity, perfect cream—and an espresso, because what else would a coffee aficionado drink?
You have just one problem: The coffee is perfect yet again.
The weather and humidity have changed, and the beans aren't always consistent. Even so, your barista is a witch. She turns out perfect coffee, no matter what.
You complimented her on the coffee a few days ago, but what will you do today? Should you compliment her today? And tomorrow? And what about the next 365 days?
This kind of “praise problem” seems hard to solve.
We feel that praise is valuable because it's restricted. If we start praising continuously, we think it loses its value. Firstly, that's not true. You can praise someone frequently, and they will still feel that warm glow of happiness.
People are excellent judges of insincerity vs genuine praise. Even flattery will do, but most of us can detect when someone is not honest. Hence, praise can be given every single time, all the time, if needed.
When a two-year-old does a terrible drawing, we don't hold back on the praise
Instead, we admire the drawing and may put it on the fridge or in a frame. Another drawing may follow, and it seems to receive the same adoration. Even a young child can tell if the parent is genuinely interested because parents are totally absorbed with everything that child does.
However, there are times when you can't necessarily praise someone.
Beginners fall into this category. For example, if someone is learning to write an article, their work is what you'd expect a beginner to do. It's not very well structured, has little drama and is generally hard to praise.
Trying to find something—anything to praise—would be complicated. Moreover, even if you see something worthwhile, it's hard to keep up the act day after day. It takes some time for the writer to reach the point where at least parts of the article may be worthy of your praise.
The fastest way out of this mess is to ask questions.
Remember that praise—precise, detailed praise—is lovely. However, the second best method is to show interest. If you ask the person how they went about the task, they will answer in enough detail.
Keep asking questions because what it's showing is that you're interested. Praise builds confidence, but when you ask questions, they realise you want to know more. In its way, it's a form of praise.
The second method—if you can pull it off—is to follow a structure
In the Article Writing Course, especially, I run into a particular problem as a teacher. The big reason why people join the course is because they want to write articles quickly, but also very well.
However, because they're still learning, they turn out articles that may often resemble the two-year-old's drawings. The way they try to solve the problem is by “editing”. They spend hours trying to fix an article that cannot be fixed.
Hence I set benchmarks for them. The first benchmark is time. They get a fixed time for each assignment. If they meet the time, they get praise. They also get benchmarks for what must be done in that particular assignment.
E.g. Let's say they have to tell a story. The story has many parts, but during that week, we're focused on the first line. I tend to ignore the rest of the story (no matter how good or bad) and focus on the quality of the first line.
In doing so, the writer soon understands what is expected of them.
They realise that if they take 2 hours for a 45-minute assignment, they will get no praise. If they write a remarkable story, but the first line is ragged, the praise isn't forthcoming either. Strangely, the praise is based on benchmarks. This avoids the desire to achieve “perfection”, and the writer improves in steady steps.
Not all situations warrant praise.
However, it's important to note that the opposite of praise can just be indifference. When you ask questions or set up benchmarks, you let the person know you're interested in their actions. Both the learner and you know that the work is clumsy for now.
However, as long as they get acknowledged, they will be willing to move ahead. More importantly, they will respect how you're handling them, despite the fact that they're still struggling.
Praise needn't cover ten points. If anything, dig deeper into a single point so that the person receiving the praise realises the importance of that singular point.
If you're used to saying “cool” or “good work”, that's nice, but often pointless. Detail doesn't have to be a chapter long. A few lines will have the impact it needs, but a paragraph is often better.
Avoid the praise sandwich
A praise sandwich is saying something good, then something that's critical and then finishing with something praiseworthy. Once again, it's nice, but the formula doesn't do the person any good.
When someone asks for criticism, they really want praise. Hence, balance matters. If you've got three critical things to say, you'd better have three points of praise—if not four.
However, the simpler way to work on criticism is to stick to one thing. Tell the person what they've got to fix. Then tell them where they've done it well. In a way, you're saying: “This is an easy fix. You already know how to do it, and go out there and do it well.”
What do you do when there's nothing to praise?
A beginner acts like a beginner. There's not a lot you can say that's praiseworthy. Well, it's hard to go on and on about something that needs a mountain of improvement. However, praise isn't all about kudos.
Praise can also be your interest in someone's work. Asking them questions allows them to explain their process, but most importantly it shows your interest in their work.
That causes the person to be encouraged even when they know they're not particularly good at something. Just ask questions, and be interested. It's often the best thing you can do to give praise.
Likes are fine for an instant but fade away too quickly. To create lasting praise, use a Post-It, a postcard or any form of paper. Paper matters.