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How To Give Praise That Doesn’t Sound Fake

Positive feedback is easy to forget. What if you want your input to stick around long after the thanks are through? Here’s how.

How To Give Praise That Doesn’t Sound Fake
[Applauding: Dean Drobot via Shutterstock]

A vice president of an investment bank (let’s call her Valerie) admitted that she never told people when they had done something well. Her reason? “That is what they’re paid for,” she explained.

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If they were doing a satisfactory job, Valerie’s argument suggested, it seemed unnecessary to praise them. Perhaps the word “vice” in Valerie’s job title referred to her bad habit of not praising, because the view from the people who worked for her was likely to be quite different. They don’t know when they’ve done a good job because no one tells them. In search of approval, they keep trying new approaches, often ignoring successful ideas for others that have less chance of working.

So what’s the best way to offer feedback? There are times when a quick “nicely done” is sufficient. However, if you want the impact of praise to last and you want a good chance at changing how a person does things in the future, then you would do well to follow this five-star praise model:

1. Provide Context

If the praise isn’t given immediately, then it will help the person if you describe a bit about the incident you are talking about. For example, “That dinner we had in your home–when was it? Last Thursday? Yes, that’s the one.”

2. Be Specific

The more specific the praise, the more effective it is. By just saying “Thanks for the report; it was great,” you are not giving the person anything they can use and apply in the future. Was the report great because it was long, had pictures, started with a succinct summary, included questions for the reader to answer, or what? The best praise focuses on specifics.

Again, find a balance. Simply telling the host of that dinner (in the previous example) “Great food” might not be enough. But telling her “I particularly liked the infusion of rosemary that seeped through the succulent lamb like the soft scent of early dusk in the savanna of my adolescence” is clearly over the top.

3. Describe the Impact

This is the part that motivates. When people understand the positive consequences of their behavior, it’s a big incentive for them to repeat the good things they did. Again, a balance needs to be struck. Overstating the impact (e.g., “You saved my life by preparing such a wonderful meal”) will sound fake, and your praise will have significantly less impact–if any–because it almost sounds like you’re mocking the situation.

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4. Reinforce Their Identity

This makes the person feel really good about themselves and/or their actions. You might say, “I have to compliment you. Not only was dinner delicious but to get that many interesting people together and make sure they were all served at the same time, as well as engage in conversation as the host, is simply impressive. That’s organization and attention to detail at its finest.”

5. Congratulate

This is usually the beginning, middle, and end of praising. It has a role but if it’s all you do, you get only one star.

When your praise earns five stars, you know you’ve done it right. It takes practice. But it’s not like we all don’t have a bunch of people in our lives who deserve some praise right now.

Think of a couple of situations in which you might praise someone, and think about how to give them the full five-star praise effect. Jot down the suggestions and confirm: Does the praise seem real? If it feels fake, think about another way of making your points.

If you can’t find anything to praise, then of course it’s possible that there isn’t anything the other person is doing well. However, it’s far more likely that you simply aren’t looking hard enough.

If someone is usually late, then praise them on the one occasion when they arrive on time, or if they deliver something when they said they would, or even, possibly, when they are less late than usual. And don’t forget to mention the beneficial impact this punctuality has.

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This article is an excerpt from MIND GYM by Sebastian Bailey, Ph.D. and Octavius Black, copyright 2014. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.