A fourth-grade teacher made it a practice to compliment each of her students as they left school each day. On one particular day, Billy was incredibly challenging and disruptive. By the time school ended, he was hyper and she was frazzled. As the pupils filed out of the room, she smiled at each one. “Susie, you really rocked that spelling test.” “Johnny, great job on your report.” “Bobby, you were very helpful today.”
Next in line – Billy. Oh no, she thought to herself. He has been a royal pain all day. How can I compliment him without lying? Approaching the classroom door, he locked eyes with the teacher. She finally found her tongue and said, “Billy, you’re wearing a very nice shirt.” He smiled and left. The relieved teacher returned to her desk. Mission accomplished.
Have you noticed how much easier it is to find something wrong with a person than it is to find something right? Pit criticism against compliments and criticism usually wins. Why? I think it’s because we’re naturally hard-wired to be more negative than positive, whether it’s what we say or what we hear.
An article in Psychology Today states that there are more negative emotional words (62%) than positive words (32 %) in the English dictionary. According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain, a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala–the fear center of the brain. Negative words release dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our ability to reason logically. (see Therese Borchard’s blog in World of Psychology.)
Some people are so used to hearing the negative that they don’t know what to do when they hear something positive. Case in point–airport employees. A few days ago, my husband and I were waiting at the Atlanta airport during the ice/snowstorms that hit the Midwest and Northeast. Flight after flight was either delayed or canceled–including ours. I watched the attendants as they studied the computer monitors and every 20 minutes or so announced another delay. Disgruntled passengers made their way to the counter, and the attendants braced themselves for verbal attacks. I was curious to see how the employees would respond. It seemed like an invisible shield covered them. Their faces looked engaged but their ears were closed. They knew what was coming and they knew how to deflect.
When our flight was finally announced, we stood in line as the attendants robotically scanned boarding passes, almost oblivious to the passengers. As I approached the scanner, I leaned toward the attendants and said, “Thanks for serving us so well. Have a wonderful new year.” They both looked at me like they had never received a compliment.
That one incident has stirred something inside of me. I am committing to make one simple change in 2016. I want to be more intentional about letting my words have a positive impact within my sphere of influence. I want to compliment more than I criticize. I want to point out the positive before I notice the negative. King Solomon actually compared our words to nourishment –“The lips of the righteous nourish many” (Proverbs 10:21). Maybe I can’t change the world, but I can influence the lives of those around me with enriching words.
It’s a pretty righteous goal, don’t you think? Anyone care to join me?