The Anatomy of Encouragement

Proverbs 10:11 The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life.

We’ve all had that moment where we were impressed with someone’s performance and felt the urge to give them a word of encouragement. Then, as we open our mouth, the only thing that comes out is, “Hey, you did a great job tonight” or ,“Thanks for your leadership—that was good today.” While I’m sure they appreciate the praise, think of how much more powerful it could be if we simply put some thought and intention into our encouragement.

Encouragement is powerful and has the ability to lift a spirit, shape self-esteem or galvanize an individual’s resolve to continue in the face of difficulty. So, think about it: Do your encouraging words have power, or are they just ineffectual comments? Years ago, Larry Crabb wrote an entire book titled Encouragement: The Key to Caring. A whole book on encouragement! There’s a lot we can learn about this simple yet influential leadership skill.

Perhaps the key to putting a punch to our praise is looking at the anatomy of effective encouragement. While there is much more to it, here are three simple ingredients to get you started:

Sincere: Before speaking words of encouragement, check your motives and make sure you’re doing it to lift up the other individual, not to gain something for yourself. Solomon warns us in Proverbs 26:28, “A flattering mouth works ruin.” The Hebrew word for “ruin” comes from a root word meaning “to push, drive away or cast down.” If we’re not careful, insincere words can have an opposite effect we desire, pushing people away rather than building them up. I was having lunch with a young man one day who continued to sing my praises throughout the whole hour. While I’m always up for a dose of encouragement, I found it strange because he had never met me. His words were pleasant, yet I found myself pushed away from him rather than drawn to him. Encouragement is always best served with a sprit of sincerity.

Specific: If you want your words of praise to have more punch, then be specific with your encouragement. Notice the specifics of what people do well, and consider how it impacted you personally. Performance is good for a reason, and if we look close enough we can find little nuances that made it special. Many evenings Cindy and I watch The Food Network, and I’m always fascinated at how much detailed feedback the judges give about the look, taste and flavors of each dish. They’re able to praise or critique each chef with great detail because they’ve acquired a sensitive palate that enables them to taste flavors the average person doesn’t notice. In the same way, we must look for and praise the specific detail of an individual’s work. That takes encouragement to a very deep and meaningful level. So instead of saying, “Hey, you did a good job.” You can say, “When you led the small-group discussion tonight, you really asked insightful questions that challenged my thinking in new ways. You have a real gift for making people think. I appreciate you using that gift to add value to my spiritual walk.” Specific encouragement is meaningful encouragement.

Strength Focused: God has gifted each of us in very specific ways. Each day we use and develop those strengths. Over time, as those strengths develop, they become obvious to others. Paul had been around young Timothy so much that he become very familiar with his strengths. And then, in a very crucial time in Timothy’s ministry, Paul told him, “Fan into flame the gifts God has given you.” By giving people encouragement centered on their particular strength, we are in essence helping them fan the flame of their strengths. Giving someone sincere, specific encouragement that is focused on his unique strengths helps him learn something new about himself and deepens his wisdom about using that particular strength. I’ve always said encouragement is one of the most overlooked leadership development tools available to us.

Encouragement is one of those small investments we can make daily that will bring a huge return. Solomon observed, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11). The right word spoken the right way at the right time can impact lives in ways we may never know. So what are you waiting on? Give an intentional word of encouragement today!