7 Tips for Giving Effective Praise.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 7 tips for giving effective praise.

Gold-star junkie that I am, I was once grumbling to my mother about the fact that some extraordinarily praiseworthy effort on my part had gone unremarked. My mother wisely responded, “Most people probably don’t get the appreciation they deserve.” That’s right, I realized — for instance, my mother! Whom I certainly don’t give enough praise for everything she does for me.

This got me thinking about the importance of praise, and how to praise effectively. The right words of praise can be so encouraging, but bland, empty praise is meaningless.

1. Be specific. Vague praise doesn’t make much of an impression.

2. Find a way to praise sincerely and realistically. It’s a rare situation where you can’t identify something that you honestly find praiseworthy.

3. Never offer praise and ask for a favor in the same conversation. It makes the praise seem like a set-up.

4. Look for something less obvious to praise – a more obscure accomplishment or quality that a person hasn’t heard praised many times before.

5. Don’t hesitate to praise people who get a lot of praise already. I’ve noticed that even people who get constant praise – or perhaps especially people who get constant praise – crave praise. Is this because praiseworthy people are often insecure? Or does getting praise lead to a need for more praise? I’m not sure, but it seems often to be the case.

6. Praise people behind their backs. The praised person usually hears about the praise, and behind-the-back praise seems more sincere than face-to-face praise.

7. Beware when a person asks for your honest opinion. This is often a clue that they’re seeking reassurance, not candor.

Praise is gratifying to the person getting praised, of course, but it also boosts the happiness of the praiser — at least I’ve found that true of myself. Because the way we feel is very much influenced by the way we act, by acting in a way that shows appreciation, discernment, and thoughtfulness, we make ourselves feel more appreciative, discerning, and thoughtful. And that boosts happiness.

Have you thought of any other good ways for giving people deserved praise?

And if you’re grappling with the opposite problem — of not getting enough praise yourself — check out these Five tips for dealing with feeling unappreciated. I’ve tried all these strategies. With mixed success.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and every weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email inbox. Sign up here, or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.

  • When I saw your post topic in my reader, I had to come over and leave a comment. I am reading an excellent book (so far at least pg 38), Practicing Affirmation by Sam Crabtree put out by Crossway. You may enjoy it and btw, I enjoy your blog! 🙂

  • Gretchen, I started reading your book last night (after seeing my girl Jackie Danicki rave about it on her blog in the past), and I had to stop by and tell you how much I’m enjoying it. I’ve just moved countries and have some time to spare, so it is refreshing to consider how I might use your findings as a bit of a blueprint for my new life. I’m going to investigate your happiness project toolkit as soon as I’ve posted this comment.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the great benefits of giving praise. We all get a buzz out of hearing that our efforts have been appreciated, regardless of how big or small they might be. I’m always a bit suspicious of people who are stingy about praising others: people who are happy themselves seem not to find it difficult to celebrate others’ achievements.

    A gold star for you: your book is both useful and really well written – your use of language is fantastic and I am so glad that you gave up the law and pursued your love of writing!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much! I’m thrilled to hear that my work resonates with you. And
      you KNOW I love those gold stars. And what a small world — Jackie Danicki!

  • Great post and i have become a fan of your posts. I have not yet got any of your books and love to have one by this week end.

  • I love this! Fantastic tips.

  • Sarah

    Gretchen, I love your book and your blog! However, I’m not sure if I completely agree with this post. It might just be that I think “praise” sounds kind of condescending, because it is an evaluation of what someone else is doing, whether or not it is a good evaluation. I think people tend to be happier when they do something of their own accord and not because they are trying to please, or get praise, from someone else. I think a lot of the current research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation supports this.

    • gretchenrubin

      You make a very important point. Praise plays a dangerous role in motivation
      — both by people giving it and getting it. But I don’t think that’s the
      only role that praise plays for people.

  • Delia Lloyd

    thanks for this, Gretchen. I think it is particularly useful list for parenting. We sometimes forget as parents (OK, I do) how much our kids need to hear praise. I think we sometimes take it for granted that they know how much we love/admire them but they need to hear it. Appreciate the reminder.

    Delia Lloyd

    • Cece

      I agree with you, Delia. And many years ago I learned the power of #6 in parenting. If I praised my children to someone else, when I knew they were listening (but they thought I didn’t know it), WOW — they actually could take it in! Gretchen is right on. It magically lends credibility. And the other side of it is to become the person (parent) who carries the behind-the-back praise to the person who is the subject of the praise. “Mrs. Jones raved about how great you looked in your raincoat” is a fun gift to deliver to your child.

  • Penny Schmitt

    I retired yesterday–and believe me the praise I received at my retirement lunch was sweet indeed. In preparing for retirement, I decided to write a personal email to every person in my organization with whom I shared a work experience. I composed the emails as Thank You Notes, and I want to tell you my action surprised and pleased some people who generally don’t believe anyone knows they exist. I have a feeling this blizzard of praise that I sent out to 215 colleagues is going to be an actual part of my legacy. I can’t say enough about what a source of happiness it has been to me to recall the memories so many colleagues now solidly own with me. Giving praise and giving thanks turns out, I find, to be a deep well of happiness!

  • Thank you for the consistently high standard of your writing here, your light-heartedness and good example! And of course for these excellent tips.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for your kind words! You KNOW I love those gold stars.

  • I love this, Gretchen. Thanks. You are right. Some people don’t take compliments easily so you have to be strategic about how you do it. I’ll use these tips when praising my ex husband.

  • Lynn C

    It’s kinda sad what I learned from my mother: If I ever told her she was pretty (which she was) she’d always ask me, with a disgusted look, “What do YOU want?” It’s one of those areas I’m working on; both giving praise and accepting it. Whenever someone says anything nice about me, my instant reaction to it is to deny it. “Oh, that was easy. Anybody could have done it. Well, actually, I do this, that, and the other thing badly.”

    • It’s really good that you’re aware of this, though. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to smile and say ‘thank you’ when somebody offers a compliment, but it really is all that is required!

  • I don’t get praised often, and I’ve been told it’s because I don’t seem to need it. Nonsense. We all need it. Don’t praise people based on “need.” Do it because you appreciate them and you want to show them how they look through your eyes. It’s a wonderful gift.

    One of the best things I ever got was a short note from a coworker telling me the things she admired in me. I was so touched I paid it forward to several different friends.

  • Terrific post! There’s a cliche about complimenting beautiful women on their brains and smart women on their looks. While possibly chauvinist, it really illustrates point 4 for me in a way that I’ve never forgotten. As one of the smart women, I’ve always eaten up compliments about my eyes, smile, or radiance. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if beautiful women get sick of that and adore a compliment about a bright idea or erudite turn of phrase.

  • Janine

    I find compliments very uplifting, specially when it is just a simple thank you from somebody who notices what I did.
    On the other hand, I have trouble with the complement of “God bless you for this work” or “Bless your heart for doing this” These compliments I usually hear at the coffee hour that I am in charge of after mass. It makes me feel like the blessing is conditional, I am extra blessed because I organize the coffee hour, it makes me feel strange and I often don’t know what to answer back.
    But when somebody takes me aside and simply thanks me, I am instantly happy. I also like hearing somebody complementing my efforts behind my back
    I find #6 to be the best way to compliment somebody and I often like it when it is done to me.

  • It’s fun to pass along second-hand compliments: “Gaelyn said your chocolate soufflé is the best she ever tasted.” (tip #6). They pack a double whammy–one from the original source, and one from you because you cared enough to repeat the praise.

  • JBR

    For kids especially, praise them for how hard they worked, not how smart they are. The former will encourage them to tackle challenges; the latter can make them afraid of failure.

  • Kelly

    I appreciate the tips. In a position often giving feedback to coworkers, I find these simple tips very helpful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Pam

    Re: #5…maybe people that get a lot of praise already work harder because they know their work is appreciated – it’s not about craving praise at all – it’s about being appreciated for a job well done 🙂

  • I find by putting it into writing (send an email or a card) it can be very effective as it shows the person receiving the praise you made the extra effort and it can seem more sincere… as well when I write things out I tend to really think through each and every word more than when I just say something so I find my words are more precise and to the point…in addition having it in writing allows the recipient to re-read it at a later time or maybe even in a time when they need an encouragement.

  • Cooj

    I wasn’t praised when I was a child except through second hand comments and that wasn’t often. I would always receive the second hand praise with some hesitation, not sure I was supposed to have known those words were spoken. Sometimes it was delivered with a barb, “Your mother said you were really smart but what you are doing isn’t so smart.” As a result, I’m not comfortable receiving or giving praise. I have one friend who praises me so often that I tend to discount her words, at the same time, I admit I think about them and try to decide if she is right, if I am putting out false information, if my friend of 25 years is capable of being so casual or if she really does think I do a lot of good things for my family, etc.
    A counselor once told me to “Catch him doing something right.” when counseling me on how I spoke to my troubled 10 year old. It was hard for me to do, isn’t that sad. Of course, I married a man who praises me in awkward ways as well, “You are a good cook, you just don’t like to cook.”…so, I’d say that praise is like any other form of communication, very important…”In the beginning there was the word.” The spoken word is powerful whether it is negative or positive and is a reason why ugly or dishonest words are so hurtful and carry such weight. Someone can hear a lie about another person, we can find out that what was told wasn’t true, but we don’t forget it.
    The flip side of praise, criticism, affects all concerned. Someone is considered lazy, sloppy, loud, aggressive, you learn that isn’t acceptable and wonder about yourself, especially if those words are spoken by someone whose opinion is important or carries weight. All my dad had to do was look dissappointed and we would straighten right up. If he were the type to criticize or give verbal praise we probably wouldn’t have noticed. (Of course there were a couple of times he lost his temper so there was that to consider.) Perhaps praise and criticism are both forms of judgement and therefore to be used very sparingly. Someone said in one of the posts to praise the work ethic, that was done pretty strong in my family. If you worked hard, you knew (pretty much nonverbally) that you were a shining star. If a child was blessed with a great energy that was spent working, they had found the proper groove. If they didn’t have that energy, they were doubly damned, they didn’t feel good and they didn’t get the acknowlegment for their performance. So, I guess I would say knowing how to critiize is as important as knowing how to praise, not just with children but with everyone in our lives. Children are so important ,of course, because they carry forward what we teach. I think it was Maya Angelou who said, “When you know better, you do better.” That’s the least we can do. The hard part is knowing what is better. I don’t think the verbal praise is as important as acceptance, the soft touch, the gentle voice, the ready smile and the encouragement we all need. That special twinkle in the eye reserved for letting someone know we find them delightful. Genuine and heartfelt like a warm hug. When someone laughs at our joke, listens to our story gives us their full attention such as when Steven Covey says “Seek first to understand.” When another holds our hand while taking a walk, asks our opinion, sends a note in the mail, trusts us with their secrets, looks us in the eye with love, gives of their time, we are receiving high praise indeed.

  • Nice post. I’d like to add, “be generous with your praise. Some of the most confident and powerful seeming people are truly touched by your noticing.”

  • Elihabsfan

    Praise for you Ms. Rubin.  This material you provide is a wonderful boost and a fantastic way to spend time on line – raising my and others’ spirits.

    You get high praise for this!


  • Kristanbul

    For people who are stymied by what to say when praised, maybe try “What a lovely/kind/nice/thoughtful thing to say, thank you”.  And leave it at that.  You feel good, they feel even better, and you can let the subject drop.  Requires no further discussion and works in every case, even when you are suspicious of the motives of the person saying it (yes, it happens).