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Health & Balance

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The Power of Praise

How giving it is the key to getting it

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Gretchen RubinGood Housekeeping Magazine Logo

I'm a real gold-star junkie. One of my worst qualities is my insatiable need for credit; I always want the recognition, the praise, that gold star stuck on my homework. Recently, I was grumbling to my mother about the fact that some extraordinarily praiseworthy effort on my part had gone unremarked upon. My mother wisely responded, "Most people probably don't get the appreciation they deserve." That's right, I realized — for instance, my mother herself! I certainly don't give her enough praise for everything she has done for me. Our conversation started me thinking about the importance of praise, and how to praise effectively.

1. Be specific Vague praise doesn't make much of an impression. Parenting experts often express this point of view: Praising a child means more when it's specific than when it's general. "What a beautiful painting!" is less gratifying than "Look at all the colors you've included! And I see you've used all your fingers with the finger paints. You've really made your picture look like a spring garden!" This is true for adults, too. "Great job!" is less satisfying than an enumeration of what, exactly, was done well. General praise sounds perfunctory and meaningless; specific praise seems heartfelt.

2. Never offer praise and ask for a favor within the same conversation It makes the praise seem like a setup for whatever you're asking for.

3. Look for something less obvious to praise Highlighting a quality that a person hasn't heard praised many times before shows that you're really paying attention, not just repeating what other people have said.

4.Praise people behind their backs The person you're lauding usually hears about it, and behind-the-back praise seems more sincere than face-to-face praise. That's why I make an effort to repeat any behind-the-back compliments I hear.

5. Match the quality of the praise to the difficulty of the task If a job was quick and easy, a hasty "Looks great!" will do; if it was protracted and challenging, be more lengthy and descriptive.

6. Remember the negativity bias The "negativity bias" is a psychological phenomenon: People react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. For example, within a marriage, it takes at least five good acts to repair the damage of one critical or destructive act. So when I praise someone, I remember that one critical comment will be far more memorable than several positive ones. If I want someone to walk away feeling great, I skip any negative remarks.

7. Praise the everyday as well as the exceptional When people do something unusual, it's easy to remember to give praise. But what about the things they do well all the time without any recognition? I try to point out how much I appreciate the small services and tasks that someone unfailingly performs. Something like, "You know what? In three years, I don't think you've ever been even an hour late with the weekly report." After all, we never forget to make a comment when someone screws up.

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