Affirmation

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The following post is a project to share reflections about all 28 of the core elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?!.

What if…we lived life consistently looking for the good in our own experiences?  What if!?

As a classroom teacher, looking for the good was not part of the culture at my school.  Critique was, though. What are kids doing wrong? Point it out so that they can grow and learn!

When I was grading papers, it was so much easier to notice what kids did wrong (poor use of a semi-colon, again!) than what they did right (creative imagery!).  After marking up a paper, I had to force myself to re-read it in order to find some compliments.  How messed up is that — that I had to force myself to affirm my students?!

Now I work as an academic coach at a private school.  Although I’m technically there to support kids with learning disabilities, it’s become apparent that teachers crave support too.  Especially affirming support.

At a meeting last week, I had been pushing the school to create systems that help students be accountable for their work.  Over lunch, a teacher approached me and asked, “Gretchen, I really think that the system I use for communicating grades to parents and kids is the best possible system for what you’re talking about.  Am I deluding myself? What do you think?!”

I was so struck by how much this teacher needed feedback and acknowledgment.  The subtext I heard was: I’m trying. I care. I’m doing my best.  Do you see me?

In fact,  all year I’ve admired his system for using Google Spreadsheets to communicate grades and missing assignments to families.  I’d been thinking it but I never said it.

And yet, I know full well that we “can create much more change in another by pointing out their strengths than by criticizing their weaknesses” (from the InterPlay leader training handbook).

In the InterPlay context, affirmation refers to naming the good in ourselves and others.  But it also has to do with practicing noticing the best parts of our own experience (as opposed to fixating on other people’s experiences).

I coach a student who loves to write. Although she doesn’t care an iota about academic writing, she hungers for feedback about her creative short stories. However, she hates it when I give general compliments like “This story is great! You’re such a good writer.”  Rather, she wants specifics; she wants to know what I’m experiencing as I read her words:

Wow, the way you describe your characters in the opening sentences makes me really curious about what’s going to happen. But in the second paragraph the curiosity went away because I got a little confused about who was talking.  I had to reread several sentences to figure it out.”

Certainly, there is a place for general praise and encouragement.  In InterPlay classes, we’re trained to say “good!” or “yes!” frequently so that people feel supported.  Creating an atmosphere of affirmation, after all, is crucial to opening up people’s creativity.

But I’m also fascinated that, in the story above, my student continued to feel affirmed even when the feedback I was giving was technically “negative.” Maybe it really is true what Marshall Rosenberg says, that the most basic human desire is to contribute to others.  I like feeling curious, and my student wants that for me.  Because she cares about me, she’s motivated to fix anything in her writing that gets in the way of my curiosity.

And as the InterPlay facilitator’s handbook says, “To be headed toward our desires is always a good direction in which to go.” Yuh – huh! What would formal learning look like if both teachers and students had the freedom to move towards their desires?

More and more, I’m committed to creating a culture of affirmation.  It’s one of the reasons I love twitter so much — affirmation is such a huge part of the culture (at least in my circle of followers; follow me, and you’ll see what I mean).

Developing a habit of affirmation, though, doesn’t come naturally to me; I have to practice looking for the good. Here are some basic tips that are helping me develop the habit.

Tips for Creating a Culture of Affirmation:

  • Notice when I’m thinking an affirmation or appreciation. Say it out loud.
  • Pepper my language with affirmation blurts: “Nice!” “Yay!” “Wow!”  “Cool!”
  • Make sure, though, that all the affirmations are genuine. (Folks can smell fake a mile away).
  • When possible, be really specific about what I appreciate.
  • Speak from my own experience.
  • Name feelings rather than opinions.

What else?!  I’m sure there are tons of other tips!!  Please comment if you’ve got one.

4 thoughts to “Affirmation”

  1. You’ve hit on a real gem. A valuable one. I’m a trainer, and my longest writing class is two days. So I have two days to “fix” everything that wasn’t learned in 16 years of school. Early on, right after coaching school, I learned about affirmation. So instead of saying “no, that’s wrong,” I’d find the thing that they did well and praise it.

    For adult learning, this jump-starts improvement. They would do the same thing again, but work harder. After two days, I could see improvement, which I had not when I had pointed out all the wrong things.

    Keep doing what you are doing. There are long-term results you haven’t even noticed yet!

  2. Affirmation has been key for me as a dance teacher and choreographer. However, last fall I taught a “master-class” at a college in New Mexico without my affirmation turned up to full power. The students got frustrated and I wished later that I had spent more time pointing out what they were doing well. Even us “Professional Affirmers” need reminders to Affirm, Affirm, Affirm!

  3. I’ve always complimented people on clothing, jewelry, a new haircut, etc. I know it feels good to get a compliment, so I like to “pay it forward”, as the saying goes.

    However, recently I’ve decided I need to compliment the PERSON inside the clothes (“You look gorgeous in that dress!” Rather than, “That’s a beautiful dress!”).

    It may seem like a slight shift, but I love the difference it makes in ME when I change what I care about and notice when I compliment someone else.

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