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Encourage One Another: How Affirmation Helps, Criticism Harms

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Encourage One Another: Affirmation Helps, Criticism Harms Monkey Business/Fotolia

In the 18th century, author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote to a friend, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.” Science backs him up.

Criticism, it turns out, is detrimental to cognitive functioning.

Those of us who are Type A pillow-fluffers, thank-you note writers, if-you’re-not-five-minutes-early-you’re-late, micro-managing fault-finders tend to favor correction over encouragement. We believe there’s a right way to do things, and we’re happy to let everyone know it.

I have been guilty of this with my kids, chasing my daughter with a bottle of detangler and a hairbrush, pushing my quiet son to be more outgoing, join some clubs, text some friends, and for heaven’s sake, everyone load the dishwasher!

Well, I’m doing it wrong.

Research has shown parental encouragement to be one of the best ways to offer support to your kids.(2)

Y. Joel Wong defines encouragement as the expression of affirmation through language to instill certain characteristics.(2) Affirming language nurtures these qualities:(2)

  • Courage
  • Perseverance
  • Confidence
  • Inspiration or hope in a challenging situation.

Praise and encouragement are not the same. Congratulations or flattery are judgements on past success or innate qualities, while encouragement has a present or future orientation.(2) Encouragement nudges the recipient towards ideas of success at a task, perseverance or the possibility of a solution.

In his book “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships,” Daniel Goleman explains that the prefrontal lobe of the brain, associated with positive emotions, actually enhances mental ability when activated.

Goleman is not advocating a “low expectations and lots of praise” environment of mediocrity. Rather, he reports that positive feedback can increase information processing, cognitive flexibility and creative thinking.(3)

So back to Wong’s affirmations: inspiring courage, perseverance, confidence and inspiration, actually helps people think better. Even when coaching a child, friend or employee through the repercussions of a mistake, the use a positive tone creates better memories of the event than using a negative tone.(3)

Improved cognition equates with improved performance with kids and adults — your kids do their chores, your team meets deadlines. In contrast, negative feedback by leaders to employees has been found more likely to induce anxiety, guilt and fear, according to Belle Beth Cooper at Fast Company.(3)

In a study on the neural responses to maternal criticism, teenagers listened to tapes of maternal criticism (i.e., teenage torture) while undergoing brain scans. Researchers found that their mothers’ criticism negatively affected the teenagers’ cognitive control (regulation of emotions) and social cognition (processing of social information).(4)

The teens were more emotionally reactive, just less able to control it — teen throws dish against wall — and less likely to remember what you asked in the first place.

Kenneth Barish, PhD wrote on Psychologytoday.com, “Appreciation is the antidote for resentment.”(1) Appreciation, encouragement and working through failure with an eye towards a successful, attainable future can cure the brittleness and anger born of excessive criticism.

Find the good and praise it. Give a kind word. Be well.

Reviewed February 24, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

1) Positiveness Part II: Encouragement, Appreciation, and Pride. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved February 22, 2016.

2) The Psychology of Encouragement: Theory, Research, and Applications. APA.org. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
http://www.apa.org/education/ce/psychology-encouragement.pdf  p. 182, 186

3) Why Positive Encouragement Works Better Than Criticism. FastCompany.com. Retrieved February 22, 2016.

4) Neural responses to maternal criticism in healthy youth. NCBI.gov. Retrieved February 22, 2016.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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