What a difference some praise makes!

17 Dec 2012

As a coach, I regularly and sincerely praise and champion my clients and the delegates on my coaching courses.  I also teach my students the importance of praise and appreciation and frequently quote Nancy Kline’s recommended ratio of 5:1 praise to criticism.

However, I recently experienced the impact of praise and criticism first hand.  I decided to engage a Personal Trainer to tackle my lack of fitness.  After an internet search of PTs in my area, I met my first choice – a super-fit, tough-talking man.  I spent two hours with him during which time he pronounced me “very weak and worryingly unfit”.  He said at least I was not “that obese” (I am a standard UK size 12).  He told me that when women get to my age “everything goes south” and that there is not much I could do to reverse that.  He lambasted me for having a “totally unhealthy” food diary (which, by the way, consisted of middle-class foodie items such as rocket and parmesan salad - not a fast food product in sight!)

So – what happened?  Well, I felt like a total failure; unmotivated; self-critical; unattractive; hopeless and weak-willed.  I spent the following week thinking that I was in the wrong and then suddenly I woke up and realised that I had been “hypnotised” by one man’s personal perspective.  I made a decision to test this perspective and contacted another PT for an initial session.

My next PT was also super-fit but sweet-talking!  Within minutes she was praising me for my determination and willingness to get “stuck in”. She told me repeatedly throughout the session that I was in really good shape for my age. She said she could see that I had exercised a lot in the past and that regaining my fitness would be relatively easy, as I was so motivated.  She encouraged and championed me for the entire 2 hours.  She reinforced the message that it is never too late to improve your fitness levels and tone up.

So – what happened?  I felt on top of the world; proud of myself; keen to do more; hopeful and encouraged.  I can’t wait to see her again and I just know that I am going to make progress.

Interestingly, the exercises I did with each of the trainers were almost identical and I did them on both occasions to the best of my ability.  One trainer perceived that as being not good enough and the other saw it as a success.  As I look back over the two sessions I am aware that by the end of the first session I had become weaker and quite exhausted – I couldn’t wait for it to stop.  By contrast, in the second session I seemed to get stronger and more energetic as the session progressed and I didn’t want it to stop!

Although I teach the importance of praise to coaches and managers and leaders, the personal experience of being both praised and criticized was a real lesson for me.  The impact of either approach is magnified when one is feeling vulnerable or unsure and when high emotions are elicited by the experience.  I was also reminded that we should question feedback, even when it is delivered by a perceived “expert”.  Sometimes the messages are harder to dispute when delivered by someone we consider to have authority – all the more reason to bring our own adult logic and reasoning into play and question the validity of the ‘witness’ and  consider what was the intention behind the behaviour.