Praise vs. Encouragement

Encouragement vs. PriaseFor years it has been thought that praise was the ultimate “carrot” to dangle before a child, student, employee, etc. to foster more of whatever behavior or action we were praising.  For instance, if we wanted a child’s continued help in keeping his or her room clean we might say “You’re the best helper I ever had,” or if we wanted an employee to continue to make an effort to succeed we might say “You are the best employee I ever had.”

But there is growing controversy with regard to praise.  It is now thought that if we always reward a person with praise after a task is completed, not only does it start to feel insincere, but the person comes to expect it, and if it is not forthcoming, its absence may be interpreted as failure.

Various studies seem to indicate that people who are subjected to continuous praise ultimately learn to do things to please others, as opposed to learning to do them for their own sake.

Praise is frequently laden with judgment or evaluation as in “best” or “highest”:  “You are the best helper I ever had” or “you got the highest test score in the class.”

Evaluative praise, expressing favorable judgment about another person or his behaviors – as in: “Aaron, you are such a good boy,” often utilizes superlatives like “wonderful,” “marvelous,” “superb” etc.   It is frequently used to offer a favorable global evaluation of the person, and is rarely constructive.  Broad in scope and impersonal, evaluative praise creates anxiety, invites dependency, and evokes defensiveness.  If what we’re seeking to promote is self-reliance, self-direction and self-control, qualities that must be free from outside judgment, then we must rethink the use of evaluative praise as well.

That’s not to say that avoiding all praise is the answer; genuine praise, spontaneous loving words free from the intent to manipulate someone’s behavior is powerful.  In fact, it is probably encouragement (rather than praise) that we wish to convey in the first place:  the encouragement of any learner for trying something despite the potential for failure.

Learning to encourage without manipulation and without judgement is now thought to be  the better choice when we wish to convey encouragement or gratitude.  For example, “You are the best helper I ever had,” becomes “The room looks very neat since you put away your clothing.”

There is an interesting illustration of these principles to be found in Cellist, the autobiography of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1965) in which he describes meeting the famous cellist Pablo Casals:

“Mr. Casals.” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.

“Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded.  Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear.  I never played worse.  Casals asked for Bach.  Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.

“Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals, embracing me.
Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.

The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I played for him until late at night.  Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin.  He reacted with sudden anger.  He rushed to the cello, “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata.  “Didn’t you play this fingering?  Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” he demonstrated.  He went thorough Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done.  “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”  I left with the feeling of having been with a great artist and a friend.


In an interview with Yogi Times, Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for NonViolent Communication, was asked about the difference between celebration and praise.

Rosenberg: “In NVC, we consider praise and compliments a violent form of communication. Because they are part of the language of domination, it is one passing judgment on another. What makes it more complex is that people are trained to use praise as reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want. For example, parents I work with, teachers, managers in industry have been trained in courses and by other people to use praise and compliments as rewards. In a family, we are taught that if you praise and compliment children daily, they are more likely to do what you want. Teachers do the same in school to get children to work more. And managers in industry are trained to do this, showing them how to use praise and compliments as rewards. To me, this is a violent form of communication because it is using language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude.

So in NVC we show people to make sure that before you open your mouth to get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them. Your only purpose is to celebrate. To celebrate the life that has been enriched by what the other person has contributed to you. Then, once conscious to make clear three things in this celebration; first, what the person did that enriched your life, not a generality, like “your so kind, beautiful, or wonderful” but what concretely did they do for you. Second, how do you feel inside about their action? And third, what need of yours was fulfilled inside you by their contribution?

I had just finished saying this to a group of teachers, telling them about the dangers of using praise and complements as rewards. I showed them how to do it this other way and I must not have done a good job of explaining this because afterward, a woman came up and said, “You were brilliant.” I said, “That is no help. I have been called a lot of names in my life some positive and some far from positive and I could never recall learning anything of value from someone telling me what I am. I don’t think anybody does but I can see by the look in your eyes you want to express gratitude.” She said, “yes,” and I said, “I want to receive it but telling me what I am doesn’t help.” She said, What do you want to hear?” “What did I say in the workshop that made life more wonderful for you?” She said, “You are so intelligent.” I said, “That doesn’t help.” She thought for a moment and then opened her notebook and said, “Here these two things that you said really made a difference.” I said, “How do you feel?” She said, “Hopeful and relieved.” I said, “It would help me if I knew what needs of your were met.” She said, “I have this 18 year old son and when we fight, it is horrible. It can go on for days. I have been needing some concrete direction and these two things have made such a difference for me.”

When I give this example, people can see the difference between praise and gratitude and how different in value both are. In the case of celebration, you can trust it is being done with no manipulation so that you will keep doing it or say something nice about them. Instead, it is really coming from the heart. It is a sincere celebration of the exchange between two people.”

The above concepts are fully detailed in Rosenberg’s latest book Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World

Language has power.  Our choice of words can be used to uplift or to crush, to dominate and control, or to encourage, appreciate, and set free.  Much of what we say, particularly when it comes to praising a behavior we wish to see continued, is learned.  Habit, more than a desire to manipulate a behavior, tempers what we say and how we receive it.  With a little thought and perhaps some extra effort initially, we can modify our language to reflect our intent:  We can learn to encourage, celebrate and express gratitude – free from manipulation – to share our genuine warmth and appreciation with another.  It’s an invaluable gift, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end.

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