Praise, Honesty, & Appreciative Joy
I was recently watching a mother and adult son interact. It was clear the mother cared for her son and wanted desperately to connect and contribute to his well-being. The mother's strategy was to praise her son profusely around mundane things, especially around what she thought he should be doing. I heard things like, "That's the most exercise you've had in awhile. That's great." General praise words like, great, neat, and super were common and frequently came with more emotion than her son ever expressed. Again and again I watched as the son tightened and froze in the face of his mom's praise.
For him it was a bind; on the one hand he seemed to be getting positive attention, on the other hand it didn't meet his needs for being seen and celebrating what he was excited about. He couldn't find a way to say he didn't like what his mom said, because his mom was so "positive". The implicit message the son received was that he should behave a certain way to make her happy and there really isn't room for what he cares about.
Praise is an expression of the adjectives and labels you have attached to an experience; in short your opinion. Behind any opinion are the feelings and needs of the speaker, even though it seems like it is about the needs of the receiver. This gives the receiver an impression that they are being manipulated and thus there is an impulse to move away from or dismiss the praise.
If you find yourself excited about what someone is doing because it meets your needs, brings you relief, harmony, ease, etc., then express that as your excitement, being clear that it meets your needs. This is honesty. For example, with a celebration of someone meeting your needs, expressing with honesty might sound like, "You're great. When I say you're great I mean I am so grateful for the support." This kind of honesty can then awaken appreciative joy for the other person rather than confusion about what's happening.
If you find yourself excited about someone's joy or success because their needs are met, this is appreciative joy. Appreciative joy is an agenda-less celebration. Appreciative joy might sound like this, "I am just so happy you are happy."
If you are hoping to change someone's behavior through praise or criticism, it's a signal that you have lost touch with your own feelings, needs, and requests.
If you are on the receiving end of praise, and would like to connect with the other person, here are some ways you might respond:
Hmm, hearing you say that, I notice myself tighten up. Could you help me understand where you are coming from?
I hear you say it was great. What about it worked for you?
When I hear you say that, I think it means you want me to be or behave in a certain way. Then I just shut down or want to do the opposite. Would you be willing to talk about how you're affected (your feelings and needs) rather than me and my actions?
Making distinctions regarding praise, honesty, and appreciative joy can seem a bit tedious if you are trying to figure out how to do things "right". But when you can approach it with the simple intention of being connected with what's most deeply true it will help you access greater joy and authenticity in your life.
This week notice when you are giving or receiving praise. Pause and check in with the true intention in the moment.