Return to Encouragement: The Most Powerful Tool in the Arsenal
When I first started learning about the power of encouragement, I was living in the Prairies in Alberta, Canada. It became such a powerful tool for me when I had the self discipline to see and acknowledge the positive in others and also ignore the negatives. Later I worked on developing the tool in a school setting on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was a great success. When I moved to Brazil in 1998, I realized that in both North and South America the cultural patterns centered themselves almost exclusively on criticism rather than encouragement and that people used criticism to advance themselves. It was a painful lesson, but at the same time important for me to see that encouragement, as powerful as it is, is rarely used. In 2005 I moved to Malaysia, which is a melting pot of Indian, Chinese, and Malay cultures. In Malaysia I found that the belief in using criticism as a tool of motivation is so widely practiced that you almost never find an exception ( a family that uses encouragement more than criticism). Criticism as a way of bringing up children and managing people seems to be a universal way of life worldwide.
Why do we do it? How do people use criticism to their advantage for advancement?
For the most part what I have found is that criticism is a tool of power. When you criticize your child or government or workers, you put the onus of change on them rather than yourself. You take the negative attention away from yourself and put it onto someone else. It makes everything a lot easier for you. If a teacher criticizes his students for being irresponsible and soft, then he doesn’t have to be creative and figure out solutions to make the learning environment more fully engaging. Here is an example. Currently in my teaching practice I have two young students who fit somewhere on what we call the “autism spectrum” which means that they have huge fears that come up in social situations. When I introduce something that looks competitive or where they might lose, they can instantly curl up and freak out and miss the whole game. Students who have normal abilities in social situations get games like tag and dodge ball even if they don’t like to be tagged out. Students on the spectrum don’t seem to be able to handle getting “out” in the same way. They are overcome with huge fear. With regular students who don’t abide by the rules, you can just put in firm boundaries and then they seem to be able to play much happier. When you try to enforce ground rules with students on the autism spectrum, they just totally freak out even more. If I use the old paradigm of criticism, which puts the onus of change onto them, then I get absolutely nowhere. However, if I take responsibility to find out what is going to work to keep the child engaged, then they can stay and be involved. It turns out that in a tag game or dodge ball if I stay right with the child for awhile or have another student accompany them, then they can gradually figure out the game and can play. The fears of children on the autism spectrum are hugely amplified. It is not their fault and they are not worthy of blame. Criticism is such a useless tool because it just doesn’t work. Nonetheless, it moments of stress it is easy to revert to it because it is always the easier option even if it is undesirable.
Encouragement is built on the premise that everyone has unlimited potentiality and that the job of those in positions of authority such as parents, teachers, and supervisors is to find the positive potential by actually seeing it and acknowledging it. It is as if you were to go into a gem store and see the biggest stones you could possible imagine and then gasp in awe at what you are seeing. When you use criticism, it is as if you go into the same gem store, see some dust on the floor and then be horrified by the dust. As farfetched as this metaphor may seem it is the way most children have been raised in the world. When a parent looks at the child’s minute specks of dust and then blows them up, then the parent has control and power over the child. When you look at a child as a huge gem of great value, then you are in awe and realize what a great trust and responsibility you have. For some reason the dust wins in most parts of the world. Very rarely do people see their children as great gems.
Why is it so hard? Parents do not want their children to be excluded from the riches of society. Managers do not want their companies to go under. Teachers do not want their children to fail. When we approach life in this manner, criticism is the tool we use. When I look at my children failing, then I get stressed and tensed and critical. When I look in terms of possibilities and see great potential, then my first tool is almost always encouragement. With encouragement as the primary tool, which is the ability to see and acknowledge positives both in potential and actuality, then creativity, really hard work and attention to problem solving and detail soon follow. When we see failure, we compare ourselves or others to some arbitrary measures and then get fearful that we will lose out. It is when we dwell on failing, that fear enters along with negative strategies that don’t work long term.
Encouragement gets us so much further with ourselves and others. Try this.
Find someone you are having a difficult relationship with. Then actively put aside everything negative that you see about them as if it were swept aside. Next focus only on their positives. For one week say at least one positive thing to the person each day and see the relationship do a 180 degree turnaround.