I once read about a study in which psychologists measured the input that came into the life of the average worker in the ebb and flow of their everyday lives. Every time a person heard bad news, the psychologists recorded a negative input. If the person received a word of praise, the psychologists recorded a positive input. The psychologists kept results from a sampling of workers over time and eventually determined that sixty-seven percent of the average working person’s input was negative.
That is really not so hard for us to believe. In fact, we might guess the percentage would be higher. We do indeed live in a critical world. Someone is always ready to saunter up and offer a discouraging word. Someone is always standing by to rain on our parade. And nothing discourages our spirit and defuses our energy like criticism. Thomas Jefferson, who was once severely criticized as Governor of colonial Virginia, confessed to a friend how much he suffered from “the pain of a little censure” he received.
We all feel this “pain of a little censure” and are often discouraged by it. The antidote for criticism is encouragement. Note two things about encouragement.
First, in the mathematics of personal relationships it seems that negative words are heavier than positive words. As one man put it, it takes about ten “atta boy’s” to make up for one “You’re a jerk.” This is my own personal experience. After a sermon on Sunday morning, the boost I receive from ten people who tell me they were touched by my message can be dissolved in a single anonymous note that criticizes my message as unbiblical or simply irrelevant to their lives. Consequently, we must load up on positive words of encouragement to those with whom we work to offset the downward pull of criticism they receive, because negative words are heavier than positive words.
Second, words of encouragement need to be delivered immediately, not at some later date. I read some years back about a man named Squeaky Prorok who spent twenty-three years as a painter for the city building maintenance department in Detroit, Michigan. Most of the time he made life miserable for others. His temper exploded with the least provocation. His favorite past-time was to start a rumor he knew would cause trouble, and then to sit back and watch the fur fly. Very few of his co-workers knew him well. None liked him. Yet when he died, in 1972, he bequeathed all of his money to “the city of Detroit paint shop and the directors thereof.” After the court procedures, each of the nineteen painters he had worked with received over $1000. Squeaky modeled our approach at times. We make life miserable for our family or for our co-workers with our daily dose of critical words. But then, on special occasions we laud them and at their funerals we eulogize them. How much more helpful it would be if we would complement them now, while they can still hear our words. How much more motivating it would be if we would encourage them immediately.
“I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism,” Charles Schwab once said. Or to use the words of motivation author John C. Maxwell: “Encouragement is oxygen to the soul.”
So what can we do to unleash this “oxygen to the soul”? First, we need to evaluate our conversations and determine what kind of words we use. What are our personal favorites –positive words or negative words? Do we try to build people up with our words or do we enjoy bringing them down?
Then, after getting a better grip on how we use words, we need to begin to manage our words. If negative words predominate, then we need to make a change. If we spend most of our time cutting people down, we need to make an adjustment. We need to intentionally load our conversation with co-workers and family members with encouraging words that build them up instead of discouraging words that tear them down.
We also need to remember the power of the present. When we see something to congratulate, we need to congratulate them immediately. When we seen someone who needs to be encouraged, we need to encourage them at once. As the old saying puts it: “An ounce of taffy now is worth a pound of ‘epitaphy’ later!”