When someone says we are “great” at something there is often a deep part of us that squirms in discomfort. Or when we are told we are “beautiful”, “talented”, “brilliant”, “fantastic” or “good” there is a part of us that suspends the comment with disbelief. We cannot fully embrace the praise because we know these comments are not completely true, all of the time.
We know, deep inside of ourselves, that we are not always those things. We know that behind the masks that are shown to the world we stumble, fail, and sin. None of us can be completely, one hundred percent, demonstrate any of the qualities. So while we might comfortably accept we might be “some of the time”, we cannot accept that we are “all of the time”.
We are totally aware we are not always beautiful. Just looking in the mirror upon waking in the morning or late at night when we are exhausted confirms that truth. The label of the “fantastic mother” is hard to shoulder in all good conscience, because we are mindful of those moments at the end of a long, stressful day when our patience runs out and tempers flare with a disobedient child. And as hard as we try – we know we don’t always produce good work . We mess up frequently. Projects don’t always turn out the way we expect. Our words come out garbled and we say things that hurt others. We get frustrated or annoyed and loose our tempers. Because we are human, we mess up and sin. As a result, it is hard to accept the type of comment or feedback that labels us in a way that is all or nothing.
This is why it is so important for us to differentiate between giving “praise” and giving “encouragement”. Praise tends to be a more global, general comment that labels as us being “something” or “ having achieved something”. It generally reflects approval of an outcome or end product so it can give us a sense the deliverer is in a position to judge and evaluate us. It has an aspect of reward like being given a passing grade, being rubber-stamped. Desiring affirmation we then continually try to be perfect in attempts to please others and earn more praise. And over time, we actually end up being very discouraged because we know we can never truly measure up and maintain these external labels.
In contrast, encouragement is a very different communication skill. It is feedback that focuses primarily on someone’s efforts, contributions, progress or improvement. From a Christian perspective it acknowledges when someone practically lives out or demonstrates a Christian lifestyle and values. Because it can be shared even when things do not go perfectly, it has the power to move us from discouragement to hope.
Encouragement is any statement that acknowledges things such as determination, courage, work ethic, problem solving ability, kindness, risk taking, originality or creativity. It can recognize someone’s resiliency when faced with failure and challenges, the effort invested, a positive motive or intent, or coping strategies. Receptivity to a rebuke, cooperation, generosity, use of spiritual gifts, or any small improvements or progress can also be encouraged.
Encouraging statements are simple comments recognizing these behaviours or attributes. You will hear encouragement in phrases like, “I noticed how you held onto your faith amidst your trials” or “You showed such perseverance as you tried to handle that challenge.” Or “I couldn’t help but notice the love and forgiveness you demonstrated in dealing with your colleague”.
Encouraging comments have the power to uplift us and renew us, so that we continue striving to do that which is good and acceptable in the sight of God, for eternal purposes. (Romans 12:2) It motivates us to continue to do what we are doing well and to improve in areas where we are not doing so well. It strengthens us and helps build capacity to withstand stress, cope with hardships, and withstand the tests of fire. We become more courageous to take risks. We are encouraged to keep trying and to move forward. Confidence rises, because we are able to identify our strengths, assets and gifts. It deepens our connections with others. We begin to bear the fruits of the spirit such as love, grace, gentleness, or patience. (Galatians 5:22) It helps pull out from within us that which is noble and honourable.
Encouragement moves us from discouragement, anxiety, guilt, and fear to hope. (Proverbs 12:25, 25:11; Romans 15:4) This is so important in a world where criticism and contempt are reported to occur on average 5 – 8 times more than one encouraging, positive comment. (Dr. John Gottmann) Researchers have discovered that people respond more positively, relationships are strengthened, and work is more productive if the ratio is reversed and there is an average of 4-8 encouraging comments to every negative or critical comment (Harvard Business Review; How We Lead; Couples Training Institute).
Scripture calls us to exhort and strengthen one another. (Hebrews 3:13) Scripture is full of verses that encourage us when we are facing trials, discouragement, setbacks, rejection, persecution, loneliness, and pain. To help build us up so we continue to live out our faith and stay on wisdom’s narrow road, the “Way of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8; Proverbs 4:10-15).
To be fortified in this often disheartening, critical world – we need to turn to Scripture and to each other for encouragement that will strengthen our confidence, steadfastness, wisdom, productivity, and faithfulness.