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In Praise of Praise

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Whether the workplace, at home, or school - everyone thrives on sincere praise.

Flattery is a big no-no in Judaism. You're not allowed to fawn and heap exaggerated accolades upon another human being. The motives are usually dishonest, the words insincere. Everyone's character suffers as a result.

But sharing words of praise? To give a compliment where due? To point out an act of kindness or a sterling character trait? This is a big mitzvah, with power to uplift both the giver and the recipient.

When the three angels came to visit Abraham, they asked, "Where is Sarah, your wife?" C'mon, these were angels. Although their powers were not unlimited, surely they knew where Sarah was. And the Torah isn't a manual on how to make polite small talk.

This riddle is solved with Abraham's answer, "In the tent," a comment that reinforced the impression of dignity and modesty of the mother of the Jewish people. The angels were giving Abraham an opportunity to sing his wife's praises, to appreciate her anew.

But by now Abraham and Sarah had been married for a long time -- around 80 years! Surely Sarah was past the point of needing/wanting additional praise. Surely Abraham already appreciated her as much as possible.

Apparently not.

Everyone thrives on sincere praise. It is particularly important in marriage. When speaking to friends about our marriages, we frequently disparage our spouses or listen to their litany of complaints. In fact, it's often the goal of the get-together! How much bigger a kindness would it be if we stopped them mid-recital and spoke of their spouse's positive attributes, the ways in which we've noticed he's an attentive husband or that she's a solicitous wife.

We get into destructive habits. It's easier to "go with the flow" than to try to turn the tide. Sometimes it may hard to think of a compliment. Those are the situations where it's even more necessary.

In the work force, studies have found that employees are much more productive when they receive regular recognition and praise. Seems like a no-brainer (who got that study grant?!), but how often does it happen?

Employees are more likely to stay with their organization, receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers and have better safety records where they feel appreciated.

Another study determined, again not so surprisingly, that when workers had a boss they disliked, they had significantly higher blood pressure.

Praise is a useful tool when dealing with your children's education. Teachers work very hard. As parents -- who would do anything to ensure our children's success -- we are often frustrated that their efforts are inadequate or perhaps destructive. It's very easy to blame all of our children's failings on the poor quality of their instructors (It certainly couldn't be us!). Teachers tell me stories of abusive phone calls and hostile parent-teacher conferences.

How much difference could some words of praise make? "You've made history come alive." "Thank you for introducing her to the joy of reading." Or the less effusive, "I appreciate your concern;" "I respect your choosing this difficult and challenging job."

As everyone's grandmother said to say, "You catch more flies with honey." (I'm sure there's a great Yiddish equivalent!)

In the book, "How Full is Your Bucket?" Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, establish a simple metaphor. Each of us has an invisible bucket. "It is constantly being emptied or filled, depending on what others say or do to us. When our bucket is full, we feel great. When it's empty, we feel awful."

We have the power to fill each other's buckets. In short simple sentences, with minimal effort or skill, we can bring joy to the life of others.

The #1 reason employees leave their jobs is that they "do not feel appreciated."

If you see someone whose spouse or child has done you a kindness, don't hesitate; go tell them. If someone you know exemplifies a particular character trait -- generosity, reliability, warmth -- let them know you see it. I was recently invited to a 50th birthday party where the "birthday girl" went from guest to guest explaining what she appreciated about each one, what good they brought to her life. There were no goody bags but everyone went home with full buckets!

This idea is clearly essential to all our relationships but especially with our spouses and children. Criticism springs so easily from our lips; praise more sparingly. We need to reverse the ratio. Look for opportunities to compliment your partner and your children. "Thank you" goes a long way. It means you noticed. It means you care.

Apparently the #1 reason (according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor) that employees leave their jobs is that they "do not feel appreciated." It affects the workplace. It affects marital satisfaction. It affects the self-esteem of our children.

In his book, "Bring Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement," Aubrey Daniels offers these tools to make it most effective:

  1. Make it personal. If the compliment doesn't suit the recipient, or if it feels "generic," it will also feel meaningless. What specific action of your spouse are you grateful for? What particular character trait does this child embody?
  2. Make it earned. Study after study shows that children dismiss unearned praise and that it may actually damage their sense of self as they recognize the gap between the undeserved compliment and the reality. "I appreciate that you cleaned up even when you didn't want to." "Thank you for cleaning the table" (even though it was their turn anyway!). And especially (and most heart-warming), "Thank you for being kind to your sister."
  3. Make it immediate. The connection to the action or trait must be obvious or the power of the praise is diminished. Be a good "deed detective" -- try to catch them in the act!

  4. Make it frequent.

And as suggested earlier (but not in the book), make it sincere. Kids (and many adults) can spot a phony a mile away!

We have constant opportunities to uplift or diminish others (you don't even have to leave home to do it!) Ask yourself: "What would I like to hear?" And go for it.

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