The Impact of Good Affirming Skills

Most of us frequently give and receive affirmations from people in our lives: family members, friends, colleagues, even people we exchange comments with when shopping. “How nice of you to let me go in front of you.”  “Good job!” “You make me so happy!” “I appreciate that you … shared your lunch with me/invited me to your party/found a home for one of my kittens.” Affirmations are shared to transmit messages that support, encourage and nurture others. Typically, the hoped-for impact is to enhance self-esteem, confidence and happiness in another person.

Affirmations that are global and/or absolute can lessen the potential impact of the affirmation because they are usually not completely true. Statements that include words like “always,” “never,” “the best,” “the only way” can cause a person on the receiving end to discount or minimize the intended message. Changing to more accurate statements like, “You often,” Sometimes you…,” “I notice you frequently…” make those affirmations more likely to be heard.  Being factual and specific makes affirmations even more likely to be embraced by those on the receiving end of that affirmation.

I found the following research enlightening and worthy of our attention. In the book Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, by PO Bronson and Ashley Merryman, they describe a series of experiments on 400 New York fifth graders where they would learn about the impact of different kinds of praise on students.

“The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of  puzzles easy enough that all the children would do well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, ‘You must be smart at this.’ Other students were praised for their effort: ‘You must have worked really hard.’”

“Why just a single line of praise? ‘We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck [the head researcher of the project] explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids, “They’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles.” The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. “Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids took the cop-out.”

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence, Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.”

They go on to describe how the researchers gave all the fifth graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. “Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30%. Those who were told they were smart did worse than they had done at the very beginning—by about 20%.”

Dweck concluded, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck discovered, “those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort.”

How we affirm children (and I’m guessing to some extent also adults) can have significant impact on their beliefs and behaviors. Being aware of how we affirm and specifically how we affirm children regarding whether they are intelligent or instead can put in effort significantly changes how they behave as it impacts what they believe about themselves.

Food for thought: as you read this you can affirm yourself for how intelligent you are and therefore capable of understanding it or you can affirm yourself for the effort you put into understanding it. Based on this, affirming yourself for being able to put effort into gaining understanding increases your self-confidence and belief in yourself.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Consider an affirmation you recently gave to someone. To what extent was it more global and/or absolute versus specific and factual? If it was more global, how could you have stated it being more specific and factual? How do you think this change might impact how the person on the receiving end felt about themselves and about your affirmation?
  2. What thoughts and feelings did you experience when you read the research from Nurture Shock? To what extent did it inspire you to become more aware of how you affirm others, especially the children in your life? Did it provide some specific ways you might focus on affirming effort more than intelligence? How might that impact the person on the receiving end of your affirmation?

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