Most of us are not tapping into the enormous power and energy that comes from having the right people in our lives. There are 22 “relational nutrients” we all need to cultivate good relationships to get the energy, focus, and support we need to succeed.
One of these key relational nutrients is affirmation. You might have experienced this when you’ve been blown away by a random compliment from someone who matters to you. It’s a gift -- one that brings positivity, a sense of being an OK person, and a feeling that you matter.
Affirmation is noticing a quality in a person, or an achievement of theirs, which required effort on their part. It is bringing attention to something valuable in another’s character, and it is often like pouring water on the dry soil of a plant. Our minds drink up the nutrient, and we feel invigorated.
What is more, we then tend to pay more attention to those qualities and work harder to develop them. One person explained it to me this way: “When someone I care about notices something that is true and good about me, it makes me believe it more than I do.”
To be a helpful nutrient, affirmation has to be attached to effort. To affirm a quality that a person has put no effort into does little good as a relational nutrient and, when done repeatedly, can even create feelings of insecurity or entitlement.
The insecurity is derived from a fear that this is all I have of value, and the entitlement can come from the attitude that I don’t have to work for anything, and I deserve popularity and appreciation for nothing. “You’ve got a great smile” and “You’re smart” (both gifts that require no work to get) are just not as growth-producing as “You love your friends,” “You work really hard,” and “You are making the most of your talents.”
The more specific an affirmation is, the more power it has.
Try to minimize “You’re amazing” and “You’re special.” Those are general and a bit lazy. Instead “You have an amazing ability to see the bigger picture when others are lost in the weeds, and I see you express it to great benefit in our company” is much more helpful.
It’s much easier to provide affirmation than to ask for it. We often feel that we are being self-centered if we request that someone affirm a good thing about us. But how do others know we need it if we don’t ask for it?
I worked with a business owner who was so concerned about being prideful that, though he had accomplished great things, he never let his wife know how much it would mean for her to affirm what he had done. So she figured it wasn’t important to him and that he didn’t need it. As a result, when he would mention that he had just acquired another company, she would be interested and ask a few questions but never praise him for what he did.
At the same time, another part of him wanted to be seen and known by her, though he was afraid to ask. I could tell that this was important to him, and we all three talked about it. When I told her how he felt, she said to him, “This is a huge surprise! After all these years of marriage, I have admired you so much, but I just didn’t think it was anything you wanted from me. I am so grateful and impressed by all you have accomplished as a husband, dad, and businessperson.”
Then she ticked off some of the qualities she appreciated.
Tears came to the man’s eyes. He drank in her affirmations, and then he said, “I am so sorry I’ve never been honest about how much I need you to notice what I do. I don’t need it all the time, but I’ll let you know when I really feel I’d like it.”
There is a reason why Jesus mentioned the affirmation of the responsible servant in the parable of the talents. “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matt. 25:23).
It is a model of how we are to speak to one another as well.
Adapted from the book “People Fuel: How Energy from Relationships Transforms Life, Love, and Leadership” by Dr. John Townsend.