How to Celebrate People the Right Way

Photo by Emma Seppala
Photo by Emma Seppala
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The Challenge: We often use praise to uplift or thank others.
The Science: However, if we do it the wrong way, we can actually harm them!
The Solution: Learn to give the right kind of praise.

Praise is a wonderful way to show our love and appreciation for others. However, did you know that some kinds of praise are not helpful and that other kinds of praise are incredibly empowering? Before you start celebrating others, learn to give them the right kind of praise!

Why is mindset important?

As we discussed in an earlier post on mindset, our mindset affects the way we interact with and make sense of the world, and how motivated we are to learn new things.

  • If you have a “fixed” mindset you believe that people’s abilities and talents are fixed traits – in other words, that you have a certain amount of skills and that you can’t do much to change or improve upon them.
  • If you have a growth mindset you believe that, with practice, we can improve our abilities and learn new skills. You are more likely to challenge yourself and to try to improve your skills.

For example, one study shows that students who believe (or are taught) that intellectual abilities can be developed (as opposed to being characteristics that are fixed) are more likely to succeed in challenging classes and show high achievement through tough transitions.

Person Praise

Carol Dweck’s research has established a link between the way in which we offer praise and criticism to others, and people’s mindset. “Person praise” and criticism, according to Dweck, communicates and reinforces a belief in fixed or permanent traits, and encourages a fixed mindset.  Examples of person praise are: “You’re so smart!” or “You’re a natural artist!”  Person-focused criticism, similarly, also emphasizes fixed traits; for example: “You’re not very smart” or “You’re terrible at that.”

Process Praise

“Process praise,” on the other hand, centers around someone’s behavior rather than on a fixed trait. It focuses on what someone did not who someone is. Instead of saying “You’re so smart,” you might give process praise such as: “I really liked the detailed way in which you explained that topic.  It’s clear you have spent a lot of time studying this area.”  Similarly, process-focused criticism emphasizes actions, not traits. For example, instead of saying, “You’re a really horrible presenter,” you could say: “The chart you showed was a little confusing.  You might want to consider splitting the information into two diagrams next time.”

Praise, Criticism, and Mindset

We often offer person praise to others with the best of intentions. Someone does something we think is brilliant, and our immediate response is “You’re so brilliant!” It just feels like the right thing to say. However, while this kind of praise can give people a short-term self-esteem boost, in the long-term, it can be very detrimental. Dweck’s research has found that person praise and criticism reinforces a fixed mindset, which can make people more hesitant to take on new challenges in the future.  Process praise, on the other hand, has been shown in numerous studies (including this one) to cultivate a growth mindset, and increase people’s motivation to keep learning and taking on new challenges.

An example of praise in action

A music student gives a stellar performance.

Example of the effect of person praise:

Person Praise: Her parents congratulate her afterwards by saying, “You are a brilliant musician!”

Effect: The student feels good at first, but over time, becomes nervous to try any pieces of music that are more challenging. For if she takes a risk and fails, her parents will find out that she’s not such a “brilliant musician” after all. In this way, person praise can breed fear and a lack of confidence, even when it is intended to do the opposite.

Example of the effect of process praise:

Process Praise: Her parents offer encouragement by saying, “We can really tell how hard you worked at practicing this piece of music.  We’re so proud of you!”  The parents are reinforcing a behavior in the student (practicing) that is repeatable.

Effect: The student then becomes less afraid of and more eager for new challenges, because she understands what behavior will help her succeed again in the future.  Furthermore, if she doesn’t do as well on the next piece, she won’t be as likely to attribute her failure to the idea that she is a bad musician. Instead, she may be better able to learn from the situation and realize she should have practiced more.

What you can do:

  1. Focus on giving process praise to others. In your interactions with children, friends, or coworkers, try to focus on people’s behavior. When someone does something great, resist the urge to simply say “You’re so great!” and instead tell them what specifically they did that was so wonderful.
  2. Notice your patterns. How often do you find yourself giving person praise and to whom?  Become more aware of your patterns so you can work on shifting them.
  3. Praise yourself effectively. When something goes well for you, or conversely, when something goes wrong, what do you tell yourself?  Notice if you are attributing your success or failure to a fixed trait, or to a behavior that you can change or repeat.  Remember to give yourself process-focused praise as well!

The bottom line

When offering praise and encouragement to people in your life, focus on their process and behaviors.  You will be giving them a gift by helping them cultivate a growth mindset, which can lead to increased motivation and continued learning and growth.

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Katie Conlon
Katie Conlon, M.A., MAPP is a Trainer, Coach, and Consultant. She works with the Center for Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Maryland and runs her own private practice, The Phoenix Nest. She is an Assistant Instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the faculty of the Flourishing Center’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. Katie also develops curriculum for George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. She earned a master's degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in counseling and personnel services from the University of Maryland.
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