This past week I was surprised, touched and encouraged to receive an email from a workshop participant thanking me for "moving her" with the story of "19 jars of red plum jam" and for "transforming my personal experience of caregiving and compassion fatigue to wisdom that I could pass on to others". I felt very grateful to her for her kindness in taking the time to write those few lines.
Receiving such a generous email got me thinking about the whole notion of encouragement. What, exactly, does it mean to encourage someone? What is it for? How does one do it? Why don't we do more of it when it can literally transform another's day - or life?
The root of the word encourage comes from an old French word, corage, meaning heart. To have courage can be thought of as "to have heart". The prefix en in en-courage means "to make or to put in". To encourage, therefore, can be literally translated as "to give heart or to put heart in someone".
To encourage is to help someone develop courage - courage to continue growing and developing into the person he or she wants to be; to feel free to risk, to make mistakes and to learn from them. It is not so much about praise for something accomplished as about recognition of the effort, the capability and the resilience involved.
There is much about life as a helper that can be dis-couraging or disheartening. (I won't go into them here because you know them as well or better than I do.) The point is that there is always something that we can do to help lift another's discouragement - or to fuel their life energy even if they're not discouraged.
I once attended a church where, held in permanent wooden holders at the end of each pew, were cards printed with the words, Encourage Each Other ... . Below the words was space for writing something encouraging to someone else. I saw people tucking notes in others' purses and pockets or handing them to them directly with a hug. I saw folks quietly reading those notes with smiles or tears of happiness and I know that on the days when I received one of those little cards, I walked out of the church with an extra spring in my step.
So, what are some of the ways we can begin to encourage others?:
1. Listen and empathize:
When someone tells you how they're doing, really listen and empathize accurately. There's nothing worse than trying to share the reality of one's situation with someone who feels the necessity to "cheer you up".
The more we are able to listen deeply, and accurately and nonjudgementally reflect back what we are hearing, the more the person we're trying to encourage will feel heard and accepted. And, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more their painful emotions will begin to dissipate.
2. Ask clarifying questions:
Ask questions that invite the person to recognize and build a sense of their choice to use their personal power. Gently use your own curiosity and interest in problem-solving to stimulate theirs'.
3. Use your compassionate presence:
Sometimes the most encouraging thing we can do is simply to "be" with the person we want to encourage - to spend time with them while keeping our mouths closed and simply sending out energetic support.
Sometimes having someone hang-in with us as we struggle to find our balance or solutions, all the while showing their compassion non-verbally through authentic facial expressions or voice tones or continuing presence, can be the greatest of all gifts, for implicit in that inaction is the faith that the person will find their way.
4. Be a good role model:
Applying yourself to a task, even if you fail, will influence another to apply him or herself. Sharing your feelings transparently, as you go, will help the person you are trying to encourage to see that they are not the only one who feels anxious or stuck or worried about imperfect outcomes. If you move forward despite these thoughts and feelings, you can encourage others, by example, to do the same.
5. Give concrete signs of recognition:
Write a hand-written note that can be read again and again, recognizing a person's effort to manage a difficult situation or to take a risk or to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Give a small, meaningful gift that specifically acknowledges your affection for the person and your support of their goals and their actions toward those goals - a plant, an appropriate book, a poem, a special picture, a plaque, an ornament or token, a quotation.
Try planning and offering a ritual of encouragement - one that acknowledges an ending and a new beginning such as a new career or the beginning of widowhood, or perhaps one that marks the beginning, mid-way point or ending of a medical treatment or a period of study; or one that celebrates a time of passage such as a graduation, moving away from home, a spiritual awakening or commitment, retirement. Use your imagination...
Consider instituting a program of encouragement in your workplace, your organization or your family similar to the one I encountered in the church years ago. Create encouragement cards that are readily available to all members, from cleaners to CEO's, and give frequent reminders of their availability. Perhaps, offer opportunities for people to speak about how the cards have affected them and the culture of the organization.
So, I have offered some answers to the first three of my questions but I will leave the fourth one to you - Why don't we think to offer encouragement to each other when we know that it can literally transform someone's day, or even their life? ...