How to Encourage Someone
So someone's asked you to hold them accountable to their goals. You want to be a good accountability partner, but maybe you're wondering how to encourage someone. Do you send them a motivational quote? No doubt, a quick search for "encouraging words" will result in numerous inspiring phrases that will make you want to jump up from the couch and run stairs like Rocky. But what if you're looking for some more natural things to say to continually motivate a friend or family member?
A tale from the sidelines
For nearly 10 years now, whenever there's a marathon or big race in the city I'm living in, I stake out a sidewalk and cheer on the runners until I lose my voice. Typically, some of my go-to cheers include such popular phrases as:
- Way to go!
- Looking strong!
- Keep it up.
- You're doing great!
- Make me proud.
- You got this!
- You make this look easy!
Sometimes, these words will elicit a smile, or even a glance of acknowledgement. But I'm not sure any runners actually appreciated my support and enthusiasm for their efforts, considering that they were probably more focused on their own exhaustion than noticing my cheers.
Midway through yelling for the runners at the 2016 Philadelphia Marathon, however, I realized that the runners' names were printed on their bibs. I started personalizing my cheers, "Great job Amanda!" "Looking good, Sean." and I immediately noticed a difference in the runners' responses. Many runners gasped a "thanks" and most returned at least a smile, if not a thumbs-up or a high-five. (To be completely honest, some people also looked super confused as they were trying to figure out if they knew me, and how I, a complete stranger, knew their name. But nonetheless, I think they liked it.)
Adding names to my cheer strategy seemed to resonate with the runners, because it was specific to their achievement. My main suggestion on how to encourage someone? Personalize your message. Along those lines, are 5 strategies for being an effective cheerleader.
1. Learn about their goal and why they're doing it
Sometimes being a good accountability partner will make you feel like a therapist. The more you ask your partner about their motivations and reasonings, the more you can truly understand ways you can help and support them.
For example, if you know that the reason someone is trying to meditate daily is because work has been stressful, you can say something like, "Did you get a chance to meditate yet today? Remember, it will help you feel less stressed at work!" In this way, you remind them why they set this goal in the first place.
How do you find out about your buddy's motivation? Start asking! You can ask everything from learning about their goal, to who they're inspired by, to understanding their history and what has and has not worked in the past. The cool thing is that the more you learn about your buddy's goals, the more you'll learn about goal-setting and achieving strategies, which in turn can help you in meeting your own objectives. As a added bonus, by encouraging someone to articulate exactly what they plan to do and why, you help them identify any weak points in their plan, and make that goal even more tangible.
2. Provide constructive feedback
Anyone seeking to achieve a goal is learning - either a new skill, or about themselves. In this way, we are students of life. So maybe we can learn from the experts: what does the research say on how to best encourage students?
In an analysis entitled, "The Power of Feedback," researchers John Hattie and Helen Timperley explain how information about what went well or how to improve is more valuable than praise about the students themselves. So while "You're awesome," may make the recipient feel good temporarily, it's actually more effective to say something like, "You scheduled this task to your calendar. By setting aside time to do it, you were successful!" Researchers also found that when giving feedback, it's helpful to remind someone how this information will help them move closer towards their ultimate goal (see tip #1).
3. Give a little nudge
If someone asks for your help, it's well within your realm to push them a little and call them out when necessary. By asking you to help hold them accountable, they're opening themselves up for a touch of tough love. Does this mean you need to be a drill sergeant? Of course not, but you should be checking in on their progress.
For people who hate confrontation (me), it's extremely uncomfortable to call a friend out when they're slacking. But there's a way to do it so it's less awkward. First, start by just stating the obvious: "Hi Sam. Haven't seen you at yoga in a while. How's it going?" By doing so, you are just stating the facts, which aren't accusatory or malicious, and you're asking from a place of compassion and curiosity rather than judgement. You then leave the door open for them to either 1. correct the facts (maybe Sam's been going to another yoga studio) or 2. acknowledge the facts, and possibly give an explanation and discuss ways to improve (Yeah, Sam's been feeling under the weather, but will be back at yoga next Wednesday).
Even stating the facts in this way can be the wake-up call that someone needs to get back into it. Simply knowing that another person noticed their absence can actually be flattering and motivating. Following your observation, you can add a question which then makes the conversation constructive. "What can I do to help?" "What might you do differently this week?" You can be an amazing supporter by guiding the person back on track.
(Note that I recommend "a little" toughness. I do not condone shaming another person, as this can backfire: for example, a study of weight-loss campaigns found that messages that blamed parents for children's obesity were less effective compared to positive, action-oriented messages. So hold someone accountable, but please avoid shame or blame, and instead focus on the solution.)
4. Assign some homework
As an accountabilibuddy, you're acting as an amateur coach or teacher. As such, you may want to give your buddy some fun homework to validate their achievements. For example...
- Take a photo (or a one-second video) of themselves doing the action to share with you and to build a visual record of their progress
- Set daily commitments, whereby every morning, your buddy writes a commitment and plan for when he or she is going to complete the daily goal
- Identify mini-rewards for achieving the goal that day (like watching a favorite show)
By having these smaller milestones, you encourage your partner to plan for success, and make their plan more concrete.
5. Be the change you wish to see in the world
You can only encourage someone so much with words alone. In the end, someone's decision to do or not do achieve their goal is on them. That said, sometimes the best way you can motivate someone else is to model positive behavior yourself. By doing your daily goal every day, you will be encouraging and inspiring someone else. Maybe it's your accountabilibuddy, a friend, your child, or a stranger who sees you doing it. Maybe they'll make a change today, or years down the road. Either way, you can contribute by showing them that achieving is possible, and that we are all a work in progress.
The next time you're struggling and debating whether or not to do your goal, try thinking about doing it to encourage someone else. You may be more inspiring than you ever intended.