Reality Check: More Encouragement

Last post, I suggested that honesty is an important characteristic of effective encouragement. When offering encouragement, ask yourself, “Do I believe the encouraging words I am about to say, or are they just “feel-good” words and wishful thinking?”

If your encouragement is based on facts and experience, then say so. For example, “I know that you can succeed at this challenge because you have already overcome greater challenges.” Such honest, fact-based encouragement can be powerful.

Why, then, is encouragement sometimes ineffective? Perhaps the encouragement offered is really something else in disguise, as in the following examples.

Alice’s friend has embarked on a weight-loss program. Despite consistent effort, she’s had a hard struggle with no obvious results. Alice tries to encourage her. She says, “Keep trying! And if you would just exercise more, count your calories, and keep skipping dessert, you’ll get somewhere!” For some reason, her friend seems to resent those encouraging words.

While it’s fine to say, “Keep trying,” that enthusiasm was belittled by the criticism that followed—a disapproving commentary about the choices her friend is making.

What might be more effective? Alice could ask her friend’s permission to provide information. For example, when they shop together, Alice could ask, “Would you like some help choosing your groceries?”

Offering information can be both helpful and encouraging. Criticism, however—no matter what else it pretends to be—is not encouragement.

Another pitfall that can make encouragement ineffective is when it’s used as an excuse to tell others that we know what’s best for them.

For example, Harry quit smoking again. He initially had some success, but he’s been under a lot of stress and recently slipped back into having the occasional cigarette.

You care about Harry, so you try to encourage him. You’ve been telling him, “You shouldn’t be smoking. You should stop having coffee in the morning, because that’s what makes you crave that first cigarette. And you should stay away from your smoking buddies. And you should…”

Few people want to be told what they “should” do. Everybody, including Harry and his dog, already knows that smoking is not a helpful habit. Will those “shoulds,” disguised as encouragement, really help?

What might be more effective? How about, “I’m really impressed with how you’ve reduced your smoking.”

Of course, if you have information to offer Harry that could help him in his struggle to quit, then ask Harry if he’d like to hear it. That’s practical encouragement.

Different people will respond to different ways of encouragement. Some people enjoy competition, and may find encouragement in a challenge. Others simply want to do their own thing, make their own plan, and respond better to simple acknowledgement of what they are doing.

How do you know what encouragement will be effective? Asking, followed by listening, can be a great way to learn!

Perhaps the most effective encouragement of all is the question, “How can I help?” when it’s followed by closely listening and acting on the answer.

What do you find encouraging?

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