"You're a great friend" can make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But "You heard I was sick so you drove all the way out here to bring me some soup?" is a lot more than just praise. According to relationship experts, it's called encouragement. Praise makes you feel good. Encouragement makes you feel proud of yourself. Praise makes you nervous to live up to other people's expectations. Encouragement pushes you to try and try again. If you want to motivate anyone -- the kid you babysit for, your friend, or even your parents -- it's important to know the difference between praise and encouragement.
Specific Vs. Generic
Global statements of encouragement such as "You're such a good boy!" or "You're the best!" fall under the category of praise. Encouragement is much more specific, such as "You cleaned up all the blocks and put the box away all by yourself" or "You saw that I needed a pick-me-up, so you slipped that note in my lunch; that changed my whole day for the better." When you give specific encouragement rather than general praise, you are actually teaching the person what you like and reinforcing it. You're also letting the person know that you recognize all that went into what was done.
Focused on Behavior Vs. Focused on Person
When giving a person positive feedback, it's easy to praise the person with a generic "Good girl" or "You're the greatest, Dad." Instead, try to focus on the behavior that you see. This type of encouragement focuses on what the person does, rather than who they are. If you give person-based praise, the person may internalize the message that "I'm only good when I do what they want." If you give behavior-based encouragement, on the other hand, you're sending that message that their behavior made you happy, without connecting it to their inner worth.
Effort Vs. Outcome
Praise also focuses on the outcome, such as "You got an A!" or "You got the summer job!" Encouragement, on the other hand, focuses on the effort, such as "You studied so hard for that test, and it paid off!" or "You prepped so well for the interview -- you rocked!" Focusing on the outcome actually holds people back from trying, because they feel like they should be able to do well without much effort. Focusing on the effort encourages people to try again, since it reinforces the idea that their persistence can make all the difference.
A study from Columbia University backs this up. Researchers divided 128 fifth graders into two groups. They gave both groups a basic IQ test, and both excelled. They then told one group that they did very well, and that they were so smart; the second group was told that they did very well and that they must have worked hard. When offered a second test, many students in the first group were reluctant to try again; the students in the second group were ready and eager to meet the challenge. Not only that, but the second group achieved significantly higher than the first group.
Genuine Vs. Over the Top
Praise is often overdone, whereas encouragement should always be genuine. Phrases like "You're going to be the next Beethoven" or "You're good enough to be in the Olympics" don't ring true, and people will see through them and begin doubting everything you say. Another problem with praise is that people may use it when it's not warranted, like when they make an easy basket or act with common decency. Encouragement applies to a statement that the speaker truly believes in.
Present Vs. Future
Praise often predicts the future, with phrases such as "Wow, you're sure to get an A" or "I bet you get a home run in the next game." Encouragement focuses on the present, on the current efforts that the person is making to succeed. Nobody can predict how a person will do; we can only emphasize how impressed we are for the effort that the person is putting in.
- David Sacks/Digital Vision/Getty Images