How to Give a Pep Talk That Actually Works

It's more than vague compliments and stern motivations.

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By Monica Torres 

We’ve all been on the receiving end of an unconvincing pep talk. The speaker’s heart is clearly in the right place, peppering us with positive messages of “You’ll get through this!” and “Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright!” But we remained unconvinced.

To get us to actually believe in the encouragement we are hearing, vague compliments and stern motivations are not enough, a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance suggests. They found that an “autonomy supportive” approach, which emphasizes psychological freedom and self-initiation, works better at motivating us than controlling, pressuring motivation.

The tough love of “you must get through this” is not going to get through as loudly as “I know that you have the tools to get through this difficult time, because I have seen your resourcefulness firsthand.”

What a good pep talk sounds like

The researchers found that by emphasizing perceived choice and lower perceived pressure, the autonomy-supportive pep talks helped people feel close to one another and like they had more choices with their situation.

We do not feel motivated by hearing everything is going to be alright, but we do feel motivated when someone reminds us that our fate is in our hands. When someone is undergoing a work crisis, the platitude of “everything will be alright” may not even be true. What can feel true is being reminded of your resilience to handle whatever comes your way. You cannot predict someone’s future, but you can give hope and solace to prepare for its uncertainty.

This approach follows what psychotherapists and career experts already recommend for pep talks: avoid cliches and affirm the person’s strengths. You want the person to feel like you are actually listening to them. That starts with personalizing your motivational pep talk beyond broad cliches of “time heals all wounds.”

“The best pep talk is reminding someone what they already know about themselves, based on your knowledge of them,” William J. Doherty, a family social science professor, recommends. Also, recognize that a pep talk does not have to be all about you talking. Sometimes, the best pep talk is the brief “uh-huh, uh-huh, I hear you” of listening and being present for what someone has to get off their chest.

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