This is an area that fascinates me because praise seems like it’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that the idea of not praising one another is nearly unthinkable. The question about praise often seems to be how we can do it better, or how we can find more opportunities to praise, never whether we should be praising, or if there are better ways to reach our goals (whatever goals we think we’re reaching with praise). It’s one of those subjects that seems like a given in today’s society, and I think those things often deserve more than a little scrutiny to be sure they still make sense. There will likely be more posts on this topic, but first I want to do a little work getting us all on the same page with how we speak about praise, so we know we’re actually talking about the same things with the words we use.
I think that we would benefit greatly from some more precise language in this arena. Let me see if I can clarify my own position, at least. “Praise” is a rather vague term, which can mean many different things to different people. In order to clarify it, some researchers have started modifying it by calling certain types “person-praise” or “process-praise” to indicate what the subject of the praise is. It turns out that matters a lot with regards to the effects it has on the recipients. But there are other wrinkles in the concept of praise that could also matter a lot, so I want to talk about them. Let’s get to it.
I’m going to try to be as vague as I can with these distinctions so they don’t end up being examples instead of categories. Hopefully you get what I’m saying once you read a few. I’m also going to try to be non-judging about each of the qualities of statements, since what I actually think about them individually and when they work in concert with one another is plenty for another post of its own. Finally, I’m going to avoid referring to anything in here specifically as praise, at least until I feel like we’ve gotten a better handle on what we mean by the word.
A statement can be:
Person-related, process-related, outcome-related, or none of these
- Person-related statements are dealing primarily with the person being praised, and usually involve the person’s inherent qualities (smart, pretty, talented). “You are such a good artist.”
- A process-related statement deals with the effort being put forth by the person, without making statements about the person or the results of the effort. “You used so many colors in that drawing.”
- Outcome-related statements refer to the result of the effort being put forth, as in the outcome of a race, the picture that was drawn, etc. “That picture is beautiful!”
- A statement can also refer to none of these, generally by referring to the person making the statement.
It can be judging or non-judging
- Judging statements are expressing approval or disapproval about whatever they refer to (the person, the process, or the outcome). “You are so smart!” is a statement of approval about the person, while “That picture is beautiful!” is a statement of approval about the outcome.
- Non-judging statements are often simple observations, and can refer to the person, the process or the outcome but do not express approval or disapproval. “That tower is so tall!” is an example of a non-judging statement about an outcome, and “You worked very hard,” is a non-judging statement about process.
- This can be a bit waffly, as some people would argue that saying “You worked very hard,” is a statement of approval. I see the point there, but I still think it’s a useful distinction between “You worked very hard,” and “Good job working so hard.” Others might think the two are functionally the same, but one of them expresses explicit approval and the other doesn’t.
- I think the tone of voice used to make this sort of statement can also be important, and can erode the line between these two types of statements.
It can be motivated by a desire to influence the child’s future self in either thinking or behavior, or it can be unmotivated by such desires
- If a person is making a statement in order to manipulate future behavior or thinking, that statement is calculated to have an effect. For example, if someone says “You read so much, that must be why you’re so smart,” with the intention of promoting more reading in the future, that’s an example of a statement made with a goal of future changes in behavior. If someone says “You’re very pretty,” to a girl exhibiting low self-esteem with the hopes that she will eventually come to think she is pretty, that’s a statement with a change in thinking as the desired end.
- If the statement is made without any specific goal in mind, it is not motivated by a desire for future change.
- This one is also a little tough to nail down. The idea here is that some people will make statements for the express purpose of influencing future behavior, and that it is this goal that motivates the timing and content of the statement. I think it’s a worthwhile distinction, because I think people can often tell the difference between spontaneous and calculated statements of approval and the way they respond may change based on perceived sincerity or the perceived motivation behind the statement.
There are other qualities that might influence the effect of these statements, including tone of voice/non-verbal communication, the source of the statement, and even the listener’s personal understanding of the particular words being used. We could continue to parse forever, but this is probably enough to get us started.
I want to stress again that I’m not trying to judge any of these types of statements. I can think of an appropriate use for any of the options, if combined with the right other options. Some of the combinations have been shown by research to have detrimental effects on people, either in their view of themselves, in their future performance, in their motivation or their creativity.
Hopefully we can all agree that these are meaningful distinctions between types of statements, or at least that they are real. Any praise-type statement will align with an option from each of the categories, if I’ve done my job right.
I’ll throw out some examples and then see where they fall in my rubric.
A child draws a picture with uncanny skill for his age
An adult spontaneously says “You must have worked very hard on this picture!”
- The adult is making a process-related statement (doesn’t refer to the boy or the picture itself)
- The statement isn’t making a judgement about the boy himself, the work, and isn’t explicitly expressing approval about the effort put forth
- The statement was made spontaneously, so it seems it wasn’t calculated to influence future behavior/thinking in the child.
A child runs a race to the best of his ability, and ends up coming in last place
The adult (who knew the child was unlikely to win) had already planned ahead of time to recognize the effort displayed, in the hopes that the child would want to continue running races and so says “You did such a great job by refusing to give up!”
- The statement is process-related, referring to neither the outcome of the race, or the child himself. Statements about the child usually refer directly to qualities of the child, so in this case that would have looked more like “I love how persistent you are,” or “You just won’t quit!”
- The adult is making an explicitly approving statement (“You did such a great job…”).
- The adult already knew that he was going to say something to the boy before the race was even done, and he calculated his words to influence the boy to change his behavior (continue running and/or continuine not giving up when the going gets tough) in the future.
A child builds a tower out of blocks
An adult sees the tower and says “That’s such a nice tower you’ve built!”
- The statement refers to the outcome, the tower itself.
- The adult is explicitly approving of the outcome.
- The adult isn’t consciously attempting to influence any future behavior.
Okay, now we’ve got our three examples. You can see how some statements can be difficult to parse. It’s tough to know about the intent of the praise if you’re not the one doing the praising. Some observations certainly look a lot like expressing approval. It’s not even always easy to say for sure what the statements are really referring to. A lack of clarity on the part of the person making the statement can make the whole thing a mystery (“It makes me so happy!” What does? The effort, the qualities observed in the person being talked to, the end result?) So this is far from perfect, but it’s what we’ve got for now.
This is largely why I think this is necessary, though. Is making a non-judging observation about someone’s process a form of praise? It would certainly stretch any definition of the word that that I’m aware of (Oxford Dictionary Definition of Praise). Praise is generally regarded as an approving statement about someone or something. But that doesn’t really cover all the options, as we’ve seen. Judging and non-judging are only one aspect of a statement, but any statement expressing approval could reasonably be referred to as praise. That’s why I think it would be helpful to figure out a better way to talk about this sort of thing. Obviously, saying “Process-oriented, non-judging, spontaneous statement” isn’t going to work for any reasonable discussion. But maybe we can differentiate between praise and acknowledgement? “Praise” would be a way to talk about approving statements and “acknowledgement” would be a way to talk about statements that are neither approving nor disapproving. Those can be further subdivided into the existing terms of “process-praise” or “person-praise” with new additions of “person-acknowledgement” or “outcome-acknowledgement.” The third category, intent, is a tough one to fit into any reasonably-sized terminology. Maybe that one can just be specified as needed? What I’d like to get to eventually is a place where when I say “praise” everyone listening will be at least pretty much on the same page with what I mean by it. It’s tough to get out of the habit of using complicated words in simple ways, simply expecting others to know what we mean when we use them. I still do it all the time, even on this very topic! But I’m hoping that by laying this all out on here (and therefore in my own head) it will help me to internalize just how complex an issue this is.
I’d love feedback! is this helpful? Pure mental masturbation? is there something I missed that would help clarify further? Thanks for reading, and I look forward to hearing from you!