Note: I wrote this piece about 10 years ago, but it is obviously more relevant than ever.
Everyone in the world no matter which culture or remote island you are from suffers from the lack of living in a culture of encouragement. We have all grown up in cultures where criticism is the rule, that is, where recognizing negative energy is the item mostly highly prized. A few people have escaped partially by living in families that encourage and maybe even a mildly encouraging community, but there is nowhere in the world today where you can find a culture that encourages as a way of life. We have all been traumatized and even beguiled by criticism, often thinking that it is a really important part of our lives. For instance, we know that people produce the best art when they are surrounded in an environment of support and lots of encouragement to experiment and grow without the interference of criticism. Yet as soon as person puts on an art show or performs a play or gives a speech hundreds of people are there criticizing everything about it. We are trained from the moment we enter the world to criticize.
Encouragement is actually almost the same process as criticism only the focus is positive instead of negative. When you criticize, you look for something wrong and then you express it in some way such as talking about it, writing about it, or doing some kind of artistic representation of the negative. When you encourage, you do the same except that you look for the positives and then you express them. The purpose of criticism is to get you to stop doing what you are doing, while the purpose of encouragement is to expand your activities. They both work. Criticism is the fastest way to get a person to stop doing what they love to do. Most people are extremely vulnerable to criticism, that is, they stop the productive things that they are doing when it is present.
Encouragement, on the other hand, has a much less immediate and continuous effect. Encouragement doesn’t work as fast to keep a person expanding and growing in activity in the way criticism gets a person to stop. Encouragement seems to be much less efficient in getting its work done. In other words you need a lot more encouragement to grow and change probably as much as five times more, than you need criticism to stop something. The reason for this phenomenon has a lot to do with survival. Negative feedback is much more aligned with surviving and so negative emotions are much more readily felt. We feel negative emotions much more easily than we do positive ones. Our first reaction when we feel negative, is to try to get the negative emotion from happening, that is, our first response naturally is to try to stop something. This is because we don’t realize that the negative emotions are just feedback messages that let us know that something inside needs to be changed. If you are in a position of authority or power such as a parent, the first natural tendency when you start worrying is to find a way to stop it. And the quickest way to get things to stop is to criticize someone else. It takes the responsibility of changing off of you and puts it on the other person and then you feel some temporary relief.
Self criticism has exactly the same effect, and those of us who self criticize abundantly have a difficult time changing. Self criticism often happens when you are focusing on some goal, and then you feel a negative emotion such as anxiety or fear that is connected with doing a new activity. You don’t know how to deal with the negative feelings which then cause inactivity or poor performance, so you end up putting yourself down for failing. There used to be a lot of literature that suggested people couldn’t change for this very reason. When you fail numerous times, you start giving yourself an incorrect label such as depressed, timid, or lazy, when really you are just running into a negative pattern of failure that has its roots in criticism and focus on negativity. The key in facing the future is to go into it with confidence. Confidence is gained by a clear memory of what was successful. It allows you to have the necessary resilience to gain feedback in the new activity without falling apart. You actually get excited about the feedback that helps you improve.
Encouragement depends on the ability to see a positive and then express it in such a way that it seems very important. It is not only important that you express the positive either to yourself or others, but also that you express it in a way that it is perceived as being significant. Encouragement normally requires repetition and an expression of enthusiasm about what has been seen. Verbally this is done through the use of tones in the voice. In writing it is done through the use of positive adjectives and adverbs, and in painting it is usually done with color. Criticism, on the other hand, doesn’t need as much repetition or tones. The words in themselves are usually enough to stop people. For encouragement to work it needs to be much more present than criticism. The best formula is to eliminate criticism completely.
Encouragement is an act of remembering. You see something that has already happened and then you express it to yourself or others in a positive way. If you want to help a person change, the most important thing is to see positives and express them especially if what you are mostly seeing are negative things. The positives that you are seeing are observations of what is already successful and when you acknowledge success, it fixes it in the mind of the doer, and makes the likelihood of repeated success much greater.
Encouragement allows the person to take what he is already doing well and then move to the next step. The next step is an integration of what a person has already done and then an additional new process. For instance, when a toddler is learning to walk, he first has to learn how to balance himself so that he can stand in one spot. He starts by learning how to sit in a balanced position and then eventually stand after hundreds of trials where he is building his leg strength and holding on to supports to keep the balance. Finally one day he can balance and when he balances, he just naturally does the next thing, he starts trying steps. And when he tries to take steps, he usually falls because he doesn’t have the balance integrated with the movement. But after hundreds of more trials, he learns how to walk. Success in walking is dependent on how well he did the previous stage, balancing, and then integrating that with movement forward. The previous stage is always an integral part of the current stage and any future stages. This is why historians are so important because they tell the story of what has lead to success.
Criticism tries to do the opposite. It identifies a weakness and then tries to not allow something negative to happen. For instance, one of the most common fears that people have is speaking in front of a group of people. Some people will do almost anything to not speak in front of others. As soon as child is in front of a group of people and expressing himself the parents usually start worrying about all the things that others are going to say. They forget the lesson of walking. Parents love when a child says their first words and almost everyone uses encouragement to help the child express more, but when the child starts to express real thoughts and real feelings in front of others, the parents begin to feel worried about what others might say, so they criticize the child and even punish him until he stops expressing himself in public. Children who are encouraged to express themselves and told how well they are speaking in front of others, or how well they are playing an instrument in front of others, naturally want to do more, and they learn through observation, and positive feedback what is effective and what is not. Children who are constantly criticized don’t learn the lessons of public expression because they stop themselves from making the necessary trials and experiments to do it. Eventually they may even start criticizing each other in a more vicious way than parents. You know criticism is present when children have a hard time staying with an activity for a long time. They have the practice of starting, getting excited for a short time, and then quitting. The criticism works.
Occasionally, a child will need to know where the limit is in expressing oneself. For instance, a child should know that he shouldn’t say negative things about other people and also he should refrain from using swear words. But it is a lesson difficult to teach a child in a culture where everyone is saying negative things about each other all the time and lots of people swear. If there is an abundance of encouragement, then it usually is not very difficult to set limits with children. However, children living in situations where criticism is the rule, resist limits fiercely. In a culture people are much more willing to follow just laws when they are living with encouragement, than they are when criticism and injustice exist.
Since we have all grown up in cultures where being critical is the rule, the challenge of creating a culture of encouragement is immense. However, there is a very simple way to begin the process. It takes two steps. First, we can remember everyday some positive things that we did. It helps to keep a journal of those remembrances. We can analyze the successes and find out how we did what we did well so that we can continue doing them. Then to take the next step, we can ask ourselves what it is that we are feeling that is negative and what is it trying to communicate to us that we need to change. Everything in life is in a constant state of growth. The law of creation is that human beings must grow and develop. And the impetus for growth is relentless. Remembering allows you to know what you have already developed, and finding out about your negative feelings gives you a clue about the next step.
To help a person make a change the first step is to help them realize how fantastic they already are. You do this by analyzing positive characteristics and patterns and then emphasizing them with tones of enthusiasm. For instance, maybe a person can dribble a basketball very well. So you can ask him how it is that he learned how to dribble. He might tell you that first he watched some great player dribbling and then he went out and tried it. He just kept watching and kept trying and practicing and eventually he could do it to perfection. Now he has gotten so confident that he even tries new things. However, you also discover that he is having trouble learning how write creatively and what you discover is that he is not doing what he already does well in basketball to learn how to write creatively. Instead of reading from a great writer and then copying him like he did in basketball, he is trying to make up some kind of original thought that no one else has done because someone mistakenly told him that creative people only do original things. He doesn’t know that creativity is mostly allowing yourself to be influenced by the positive things that are already there and then just adding something on to it. So when you encourage him, you are just helping him to do what he already does well and then try it with other things.
The false idea about creativity being originality comes from the fact that we live in a culture of criticism. People don’t want to remember positive contributions of past artists because when they try to remember, the memories that appear are all negative and critical. They are used to hearing how bad they are, so they shut off the memory completely and then lose confidence to do new things. Creativity is much more about copying what is already there and then adding. Even in the most creative modern artists of our time you can see how they have copied what went before them and then just added something slightly different. The first step is to bathe yourself in positive memories and expose yourself to the richness of positive memories. However, it is no easy task to lose the effects of negative experiences in the past.
My daughter, who is an art teacher, uses this technique to develop artistic talent. When people produce a piece of art and share with others, she has them pass around a piece of paper and ask the people present to write a supportive, validating comment about the art based on the language of virtues and recognizing beauty. The result is that the artists become extremely motivated to do more art and try more new things. In the current cultural climate of criticism most people get really criticized, then go into a period of depression and fear, and have to go through major recovery to get back to the art.
When my tennis instructor teaches me something new with my tennis strokes, he first shows what it looks like to be successful and then puts me through the correct motions. Then as soon as I start doing the movements, he acknowledges what I am doing. This lets me know I am doing the right things. If I cannot do the stroke correctly, he stops the drill and shows me again the correct motion reminding me how to be successful. Then as soon as I do it correctly he gives a lot of positive feedback.
One of the major problems about creating a culture of encouragement in the world is that the current structure of power gains short term material advantage by trying to keep others from changing. We all know that the world is moving from hierarchical, top-down, static structures of administration to ones that are based and dependent upon equality, individual initiative, and constant growth. A hierarchical structure is one where there is a recognized leader at the top and leadership moves down through a series of levels until you get to the bottom. In models that are based more on equality and individual initiative the leadership is seen more as a facilitation of a process of growth. People often feel that they have a voice in the organization and there is encouragement to try new things.
We know from research that when you start encouraging in a community by systematically remembering positive qualities and then helping people to take the next step, the amount of individual initiative, growth, and cooperation rise immediately. But as soon as you implement these kinds of changes you can also almost immediately be assured that you will encounter resistance and it is almost always from the ones who have a material advantage and are higher up on the hierarchical ladder. It could be in a family, in an organization, in a community, or in a nation. The resistance is at the top and it can effectively destroy encouragement in the short run. The top usually has financial power, more control over communication than others, and can create rules to prevent initiative. When the top feels threatened, it reacts by using it powers to stop the process of encouragement. One of its techniques is to find something wrong with someone that is partially true, and then exaggerates the negative thing until it seems like the normal something is really terrible. It takes the burden of change away from the leadership so that they can remain the same and avoid the change process.
There is really no solution to this type of discouraging practice in the short term. They will start their campaigns of criticism and undermining and it will cause people to lose courage. However, on the really positive side, it is impossible to stop encouragement in the long run because the process is so powerful that it actually has an effect on changing the leadership itself. And furthermore, if leadership is actually done through encouragement, the growth rate is so fast and so positive that people in the group feel constantly in a state of awe and wonderment and then just naturally want to make more positive changes. The only problem we have now is being able to sustain a long term campaign of positive encouragement in the face of the certain resistance we will face. My experience on this matter is that it is naive to think that there will be no resistance, and even more naive to think that the resistance is not going to be hurtful. However, if and when resistance comes, it is even more important to increase the amount of encouragement because the resistance is really a positive sign that the encouragement is having its positive effect.
If we were just to put into practice the one idea of seeing positive things and telling others what we see, the world would change right before our eyes. But the hurt we feel from criticism is often like a huge hole of inactivity into which we fall. It is difficult to climb out of the hole because the hurt is so real and its pain so intense. There is a remedy for criticism but it is very difficult to practice because our natural tendency, when we feel hurt, is to hurt back, to seek revenge. However, in the long run, the only lasting remedy is to forgive and forget the hurt and then increase the encouragement. I can’t think of anything harder for me to do than to forget and forgive the pain I feel from criticism because I have such a great desire to seek revenge by hurting back. And yet whenever I can manage to forget and forgive, always new doors of opportunity open and the world becomes a different place for me. The reason, I believe, it becomes like a new world is that the forgetting of the pain allows the memory to experience all of the positive emotions of success in the past, then the positive emotions associated with the actual experience allows for the feeling of confidence, and finally the confidence generates the courage to take the next step. The door opens and the experience is filled with wonder and joy.
Courage is the key quality for doing new things and having new growth, and positive remembering seems to be the main force that frees up courage to act. We know that a toddler learning how to walk is only basically relying on his positive psychomotor memory and the thrill of success to propel him forward. There is no interference from critical thinking because a baby doesn’t have a critical faculty. He succeeds by remembering how to balance, having confidence in it, and forgetting the pain of falling. Somehow, toddlers manage to not pay attention to the pain for very long. They seem to be driven inwardly by the success they already have and the desire to go forward. It is virtually impossible to stop a toddler from learning how to walk even in really adverse conditions unless you do something physically to stop him or he has a physical impairment. Every toddler succeeds. Adults succeed for the same reasons. They forget the pain and remember the success and are propelled forward by the desire for the goal. It is only when we don’t pay attention to the positive success in the past that we fail.
So the formula is simple. Remember the positive past and help others to remember it and they will naturally be propelled toward new goals and new adventures.