Not long ago I wrote a polemic against criticism. One might therefore think that I am a fan of criticism’s opposite, praise. But I am not. Praise, in my mind, is as damaging as criticism in the long run, even if it is more pleasant in the moment. That is because praise and criticism arise from the same root: they are both judgements passed on a person’s worth based on what they do. I’ve got no interest in being in the people-judging business.
Praise isn’t the same as encouragement, recognition, or appreciation. Those are actions that spring from a simple desire to communicate positive regard, often by describing how your actions have positively impacted me. They are commentary, or feedback. Praise is more akin to actions like adulation and flattery, which spring from my desire to shape your behavior toward me by communicating my approval of your actions. Praise, in the end, is usually more about the needs of the praise-er than the praised. Because praise feeds our sense that people like us, admire us, or approve of us, it can be addictive, and it can send us on a hopeless quest to find enough of it to validate our sense of self-worth.
So what, practically, is praise? Praise comments on someone’s characteristics and sounds like this:
“You are so smart.”
“You always do that so well.”
“You are a super performer.”
Praise doesn’t leave any room for failure. If I have been praised as smart, or a good writer, or strong, there is no option for me but to be those things or risk losing my essential being. You have told me I am smart. What becomes of me when I am not? What will you think of me? But if I can’t risk being silly, inarticulate, or weak, I will not be able to try things that are now beyond me. Just as with criticism, praise inhibits risk taking in order to protect one’s sense of self.
Encouragement or appreciation sound different because they comment not on your inner self, your essential nature, but on your effort or actions or products. In other words, encouragement and appreciation comment on things that you can modify, whereas praise comments on things that are inherent.
Encouragement sounds like this:
“That analysis was very insightful.”
“That report was well written and clear.”
“That workshop went really well because of all the hours you put into it.”
I am not arguing that we should purge praise from our repertoire of reactions and interactions. When you see someone excel at something hard, and spontaneously give them a high five and say “You were awesome up on that stage!” there is a sincerity that blunts the negative elements of praise. The next time the person takes the stage, though, perhaps your response afterwards is a big smile and “your delivery was very clear. I totally understand quantum field theory now.”