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We’re Actually Praising People the Wrong Way — Here’s Why

When given correctly, compliments not only build others up, they also help us shine brighter.

\Rakop Tanyakam / EyeEm/Getty Images
\Rakop Tanyakam / EyeEm/Getty Images

Some of the most commonly used affirmations — phrases like “You’re the best” — are actually damaging to our own potential, as well as to the people around us.

It all comes down to the implicit message behind the praise — a message that we usually don’t even realize we’re conveying.

Shawn Achor, M.A., a New York Times bestselling author, says that when giving compliments, people often use language that lifts up one person at the expense of others. He calls this “comparison-based praise.” Phrases like “the best,” “the smartest,” and “the funniest” are some examples.

“We have been taught that we live in a survival of the fittest world, so we praise the wrong way — using comparison-based praise, we lift up one by diminishing another, creating a hierarchy,” Achor tells Thrive.

Arthur Markman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees. “Praise like ‘the best’ is not just praise of an individual, but a social comparison,” Markman tells Thrive. “When you publicly state that one person is ‘the best,’ then you’re lining up everyone else behind them.”

Comparison-based praise also subconsciously limits the recipient by framing his or her success as a new standard of achievement — and pressures that person to continue meeting the same level of success in each future endeavor.

“The worst piece of praise I’ve received after a talk is, ‘You were the best speaker today,’” Achor writes in Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness and Well-being. “What’s so bad about that? First of all, it undercuts all the other speakers. Moreover, it reminds me of the fact that in many other cases I won’t be the best speaker, so now I feel nervous and self-conscious. Instead of enhancing me, this comment unbalances me in the future.”

Even worse, this language sets mental limitations on achievement. After all, if you’re already “the best,” what more is there to strive for?

Instead, give authentic compliments — here’s how.

A more effective method of praise is to focus on what someone did well during a certain activity. For example, if a colleague gave a stellar presentation, compliment the strength of her delivery, or share how her words inspired you, treating it as an opportunity to compassionately and directly share your feedback with them. Placing an emphasis on how someone executed an activity avoids tying their self-worth to a single achievement, which gives that person the space to learn and continue growing.

“Praising effort is important. When you truthfully praise someone’s effort, you are recognizing the hard work they are doing to improve themselves,” Markman says.

To put this into practice, Achor recommends eliminating “-est” superlatives, like “best,” “smartest,” and “funniest,” and avoiding comparisons when doling out praise. He also stresses the importance of remembering that praise has the potential to benefit everyone involved — not just the recipient. After all, it’s most important to pay attention to your internal value of yourself, not just external values.

“We have been trained to compete, ignoring that the predominance of research shows that the height of your potential is connected to others,” Achor tells Thrive. “If you aren’t enhancing those around you, you are limiting your own potential.”

This goes hand in hand with surrounding yourself with positive, driven people. When we support, challenge, and lift each other up, we pave the way for more positivity and productivity all around.

“The research I’ve been doing over the past five years shows that the more you can authentically shine praise on everyone in your ecosystem, the more your potential, individually and collectively, rises,” Achor writes.

When we look at praise as an opportunity to not only build up others, but also to shine even brighter ourselves, everyone is able to thrive — and the opportunity for achievement is limitless.

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