Why Praise When You Can Affirm?
(Reading time 7-10 minutes)
"I don't want you to save me. I want you to stand by my side as I save myself." Sushil Singh
Have you ever given or received praise or compliment that wasn't received as it was intended? Maybe, it fell flat because it didn't feel genuine?
I remember when I bombed a class presentation. I waited until the very last minute to complete the assignment, and I didn't give myself enough time to research and plan. I forgot details about key facts and I even failed to mention others altogether. I observed that the interest level of my classmates waned as I read directly from my text-heavy PowerPoint slides.
Afterward, I told a classmate how embarrassed I was, and I expected to receive a failing grade (I barely got a C on this assignment). My classmate smiles back and says, "I thought you did an excellent job!" I knew I didn't do a very good job—let alone an excellent one. I observed this classmate as very rigorous in her class work. I remember the time when she was upset after she received B+ on a paper.
This classmate continues to be a dear friend of mine, and she praised me in a sincere attempt to make me feel better (though not because she thought I actually did good work). But it didn't make me feel better because it felt hollow. Even if she was authentic in her praise, it didn't align with my own experience of what I did.
What is the difference between praise and affirmation? Would this interaction have gone differently if she had used an affirmation instead?
Push Pause on the Praise
The Oxford online dictionary defines praise as an expression of approval, a compliment or admiration for someone or something. Praises are one-directional and are often surface level judgments and observations. When someone gives you a compliment, they are letting you know how they feel about you. Praise contains explicit or implicit "I" statements which express a personal or a societal judgement.
For example, "I think they look pretty in that outfit", or "you are very smart". Both statements reveal how the givers of these compliments feel about whether the receivers meet theirs (or society's) standards of beauty and intelligence. They do not reveal how the receivers of these compliments think about themselves. Praise is not at all bad, and it can feel wonderful to give and receive authentic compliments. It can make someone's day (or at least a minute of their day) to know that someone appreciates their sense of fashion or to hear that someone thinks they are a brilliant person.
But before you start doling out praise, you should know that researchers advise that too much praise can have negative impacts on individuals. For example, children and adults who are provided constant praise may become reliant on the external praise of others. They may internalize their challenges or difficulties as failures, and become risk adverse—develop a fear making mistakes—instead of learning new skills and discovering new strengths.
Research also suggests that if the praise doesn't align with the praised person's values or beliefs about themselves, they may feel worse than if they hadn't received any praise at all. This may be because the praise doesn't feel authentic. This was the case when my classmate praised my presentation.
Also, it is useful to think about the goal of your interaction and the impact you want it to have. If your goal is to build deep and trusting relationships by noticing and encouraging a strength, skill, or behavior that that person has stated or implied about themselves, then you may want to use affirmations instead.
Affirm the Affirmations
Affirmations are the A in the OARS acronym. The others are (O) open-ended questions, (R) reflective listening, and (S) summaries. OARS are the essential micro skills in Motivational Interviewing (MI) and the core components of AE.
Affirmations are the act of reflecting back positive feedback regarding observed or client's stated strengths and efforts. The goals of affirmations are to enhance a person's self-esteem and to highlight their own abilities to make and sustain their goals for change. They provide a way of giving a person space to see their own strengths by shifting away from what is going wrong to what is going well.
There's No I in You
While it's not forbidden, it's encouraged that the "affirmer" refrains from using I statements. There is more to affirmations than just removing the I. "You are so smart" doesn't have an I, but it is still the opinion of the person giving the praise and not an affirmation. "You value learning" or "you have learned a lot about that topic" are more affirming alternatives.
Active listening, providing reflections that acknowledge and validate a person's challenges, and reflecting back a person's self-identified or observable strengths are all essential skills for providing meaningful affirmations. Affirmations can bring out deeper overlooked and unexplored values through building empathetic connections.
Some MI practitioners and researchers suggest that the prudent use of authentic affirmations is one of the most effective MI micro skill to increase change talk and to reduce sustain talk (the self-talk that maintains the status quo) during brief interventions.
Like the other micro skills used in MI and AE, affirmations are forgiving if they are practiced authentically. Unlike praise, if you don't get the affirmation quite right, there is an opportunity for the person being affirmed to correct and restate the affirmation because they are the original source for it. Real affirmations are better than perfect praise!
Affirming the Past
Are you wondering, how my classmate might have given me an affirmation instead of praise? Maybe, a simple observation such as, "it's important for you to do good work" or "you did the best you could with the time you had to prepare". These affirmations would've been true for me in that situation because my procrastination was not an indication of my lack of wanting to do good work. In fact, these affirmations would've recognized that I value doing good work because my stated frustrations were because my presentation was slapdash.
Unlike praise, the source of affirmations come from the person being affirmed and are a way of reflecting back a person's strengths, resiliencies, values, or goals. They are effective for improving a person's self-esteem and self-efficacy toward their desired goals. Affirmations used in brief interventions have demonstrated effectiveness toward lasting change talk. Please remember, that affirmations should be authentic, and like all good things, used sparingly!
One Praise and One Affirmation
Praise: You are super smart because you read this entire post from start to finish!
Affirmation: You took the time to read as much as you could of this long post because you want to learn the difference between affirmations and praise and to understand how this could be important to your work.
Thank you for reading! I hope this was helpful!
As always, please feel free to reach out with feedback, ideas, and items to share in the newsletter, requests for support, and more! We're here to help however we can: email aeinfo (at) multco (dot) us.