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How to Praise Effectively

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

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You want those you truly love to be happy and successful in all aspects of their lives. This is a wonderful sentiment that makes for a better world. However, it’s not enough to be supportive and loving. When you give praise, you have to give it in the right way for the right things.

You probably naturally praise your friend, partner, or child for their successes. For instance, you might tell them how proud you are for winning a marathon or reaching some other goal. And it’s wonderful that you share your admiration. However, this type of praise has a downside. They might feel pressure to keep up the great performance. They might feel “lesser” when they fail, don’t perform up to such high expectations, or when they are doing things outside of their strengths (meaning that they will probably never enjoy that being-the-best kind of success). In these instances, they are likely to question their value as their self-esteem dips.  They might even question whether you will continue to love and be proud of them. So, it’s important to also validate and praise your loved ones for who they are as a whole person; for qualities such as being loving, compassionate, helpful, and for just being themselves.

Research on intimate partners has shown that you can help loved ones become more like their ideal version of themselves and so feel better about themselves. This process of helping sculpt your partner into the most beautiful (in the deepest sense of the word) form of themselves was dubbed the Michelangelo phenomenon. Here’s how it works:

Identify the qualities your loved one values. Consider how he or she would ideally like to be. For instance, your partner might take pride in being a generous person but wish that he or she was even more giving.

Bring attention to these very qualities that already exist in your loved one. In this case, you would want to make an effort to pay special attention to the ways that he or she is generous… and share your observations. You might also suggest doing activities that bring out these qualities, such as volunteering together at a soup kitchen or getting involved in raising money for a cause.

Observe and enjoy the results. Make note of how your partner is more generous, becoming closer to their ideal version of themselves. Enjoy with them their wonderful qualities and how it makes them shine.

While this can really help your loved one blossom, I do need to add a word of caution. People who struggle with low self-esteem might not respond as well. They are more likely to doubt the positive perceptions of them by others. For them, this process can work, but at a much slower pace. They need help seeing their value at the moment and how their efforts are steps in the direction of the person they want to be.

When your partner believes that you are truly seeing their positive qualities shine, they will feel good and continue to make efforts at being a better person. So, heap on the praise and admiration. Just make sure you do it more for who they are than how well they perform. And by seeing your loved one more like the person they’d like to be, you can help them become that ideal version of themselves.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

Photo: Comstock

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