Do you surround yourself with encouragers or with discouragers?
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It’s All Done With People
How do we show others that we care? How do we express gratitude? How do we demonstrate love? The best answer I’ve discovered so far is one that I’m continuing to learn every day: The most valuable gift you can give others is the gift of your time and genuine presence.
In 2006 I was invited to audition for the first season America’s Got Talent with my magic act. The show has now been on for thirteen seasons, but at that time no one had ever heard of it, and I was beside myself with excitement for this opportunity because I knew it was the big break I had been working towards for years. However, when the producers told me when the audition was I had to decline, because I had something more important to do that day. And to understand what could be so important that I’d be willing to miss perhaps the most important opportunity of my career, it’s important to understand that real magic is all done with people.
I credit my parents for teaching me what true love looks and feels like to receive, and I credit my friend Stephanie for teaching me what true love can look and feel like to give. I met Stephanie in 1998 when we were still in high school, and what struck me most from day one was her magical ability to genuinely care about everyone she met. When she asked you a question, you better believe it was a thoughtful question; and when you answered her, you better believe that she really listened to your answer so she could learn more about you to understand how she could encourage you. Over the years she truly helped me in more ways than I’ll ever be able to thank her for. She truly understood that it’s all done with people.
And so in 2006 when I had the choice to audition to be on national television, or drive Stephanie to the airport like I had promised her I would, I didn’t even have to think about it—because real magic is all done with people. Of course I didn’t tell Stephanie that I was missing the most important opportunity of my career just to drive her to the airport—she would have refused the ride and encouraged me to go to the audition. But I wanted to be there for Stephanie, just as she had been there for me. I wanted to show my care, express my gratitude, and demonstrate my love for her—in ways that mere words can never adequately communicate. After all, people may doubt what we say, but they will believe what we do. And people are always worth that sincere investment.
Why This Matters
We’ve all met people in our lives who like to tear down more than they build up; people who seem to take great joy in smashing the dreams of others. For every window of opportunity they come across, they are the first one's to quickly close it. For every idea for growth, they have a list of excuses for why things should stay just as they are. And for everything that is right with your life, they a have a lengthy list of what’s wrong with you, as though they are themselves pictures of perfection perched on a pedestal.
Bearing in mind that the average person isn’t as good or as bad as they think, these exaggerated displays of holier-than-thou attitudes and constant overly critical behaviors may be a sign that the person in question has their own problems to contend with (whether they’re suffering from a personality disorder, they’re practicing projection to make themselves feel better, or they’re just generally a jerk).
Regardless of the cause, if we find ourselves surrounded by people who take Mark Twain’s suggestion to heart—“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits”—then it’s perhaps a sign that it’s time to find more encouraging companions. In a similar way, if for too many days or weeks or months (or years or decades) in a row you find yourself exhibiting these negative attitudes and behaviors too, then putting in some deliberate effort to move the needle in the other direction may be a good idea.
The world doesn't need any more Negative Nancys and Frustrated Freds. Rather, what the world needs is for people like you and me to truly come alive by steering clear (or at least limiting the influence) of the discouragers of this world and instead listening to the encouragers. There is a great call for more people to be more thoughtful about their own words, actions, and interactions with others. Will you answer that call?
9 Simple Encouragement Practices
What follows is an outline of accessible and actionable practices that you can implement in your everyday life for being a source of encouragement for the people you influence. It truly doesn't take much to encourage others and, best of all, all of the practices are affordable, require no special equipment, and are open to interpretation. It’s my hope that you'll find these suggestions valuable:
When you’re smiling the whole world really does seem to smile with you, doesn’t it? The facial muscles responsible for smiling are such great anchors for positivity that the mere act of smiling sends out positive signals to the brain making us happy even when we don’t necessarily feel particularly happy. And the best part is that this happiness is contagious. Smiling at someone is an unconscious invitation for them to smile back, sending a wave of positivity through their own body creating a cyclical effect of happiness. Smiling is an easy and a totally free strategy for encouraging others.
2. See What’s Right Before Seeing What’s Wrong
We live in a suspicious world, where we’re quick to judge the qualities, skills, and intentions of others—and often without any bearing on the reality of their true qualities, skills, and intentions. Yes, oftentimes people can come off the wrong way (after all, the proof is in the pudding, right?), but when we remember that we ourselves have value in our qualities, in our skills, and in our intentions, and yet still sometimes come off poorly from time to time, we are encouraged to go easier on those around us too.
We all have “bad days” and we all suffer from the occasional mishap, and offering others encouragement by first seeing what’s right about them rather than what is wrong with them will go a long way for producing right relations and positive experiences. What’s more, when we start with what’s right we create a sure foundation to build on, allowing us to address what needs correcting in the proper context.
3. Notice & Express Specific Appreciation
This is related to the last suggestion, in that it calls us to see what is right about someone, but it takes it a step further by advocating for the expression of appreciation for the specific value that someone else offers. If you notice something positive about someone, mention it—nothing is too small or seemingly insignificant:
Whether it’s the cashier at the supermarket, the stranger on the street, a new coworker, a friend you’ve known for years, or someone you live with, encouraging words like these can have a powerful effect on the people who receive them.
4. Send A Card Or A Letter
Next time you’re at the store, pick up a greeting card, for no particular special occasion. It may even be blank inside. Pick someone from your sphere of influence to send it to. Or, write a short letter to someone you know. It could be serious, it could be silly, it could be out of the blue, or it could be a long time coming. Start by doing this just once a month and see how it encourages those you send them to.
5. Phone A Friend
I know, we’re all busy, and in the age of emails and texts, phone calls seem ancient to many people. But people love hearing from friends. Even if they don’t answer the phone (because who really answers the phone anymore these days anyway?) they’ll appreciate the effort and your message. Make an effort to do this just once a week for one person and see how your connections respond to the encouragement.
Pick a different person every day and send them a quick email to check in with them. It’s not as personal as a phone call, but it is more convenient, and it’s perceived as slightly more effort than a text message. If you get stuck on who to send it to, start with birthdays. Whose birthday is it? Send them a quick email to let them know that you’re thinking of them.
If you want to get fancy, try your hand at creating a special birthday “postcard” on platforms like Canva or Visme. You can create a template then simply take two minutes editing it with a picture of you and your friend along with a custom message. This looks like effort (because it does take effort!) and your connection will appreciate the thoughtful encouragement.
Same as with the email, but it’s even easier to do because you probably already have your phone in your hand right now. Send a quick encouraging text to one of your contacts right now. It will literally take you longer to find their contact than to type and send the message, so just send it right now. What are you waiting for?!
8. Build Others Up On Social Media
These days most everyone posts a play-by-play of their lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Whether your connections are celebrating or struggling, take time to comment on their updates with sincere words of encouragement. Be aware that sometimes a private message might be more appropriate in certain situations.
9. Encourage Everyone
Make a point to positively engage everyone in a group. I learned this the hard way a number of years ago when a woman I was dating at the time was upset after meeting some of my friends for the first time because they didn’t all acknowledge her. Sure, we had met in passing while out and about and this happenstance meeting wasn’t about making formal introductions, but what was perceived as a slight was not intended in the least, yet it produced discouragement rather than encouragement. Since then I’ve always made an effort to make eye contact, smile, and speak to everyone in a group at least briefly to help ensure everyone feels seen, appreciated, and included. Do not underestimate this; it can go a long way for encouraging others. Best of all, it’s easy and it’s FREE!
Personally, one of the most encouraging influences in my life has been my friend Stephanie. For her, encouraging others has always come naturally, leading by example to always keep in mind all the powers you possess to grace the lives of others when they’re in distress. It truly doesn’t take much to show others that you care—it can be as simple as offering to drive a friend to the airport, and following through with it.
I have no regrets about missing the America’s Got Talent audition all those years ago, because being an encourager has its own rewards. Kindness can open the door to amazing life-changing surprises beyond anything you’d ever imagine. As Conan O’Brien so eloquently put it when he stepped down from The Tonight Show: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
Some have questioned why I simply haven’t gone back to audition for any of the following seasons of America’s Got Talent—which is a valid question. My answer is simple. When we make choices and live with the consequences, our goals naturally evolve. When I first wanted to audition for the show I wanted to be a famous and successful magician, but today I don't have that same goal burned in my heart.
And here's why, not long after passing on the audition all those years ago Stephanie and I became engaged to be married, and my whole life changed from that moment forward. I became dedicated to our relationship and proving what true love can look like, but I was stopped in my tracks just a week to the day after our engagement when Stephanie suddenly and unexpectedly died. I struggled for years even to find the will to live again, let alone find excitement and a sense of purpose for living. But time is a wonderful healer, and even though Stephanie has now been gone for twelve years, I’m still to this day living out the lessons she taught me. She may not be here physically, but her story lives on in the care that I show, the gratitude that I express, and the love that I demonstrate, dedicating every encouraging word, action, and interaction to her memory.
I may not be able to love Stephanie the way that I intended, but if it’s true that people may doubt what we say yet believe what we do then I’m confident that the new goal burned in my heart of being a source of encouragement to others is a worthy demonstration of my care, gratitude, and love. I don’t need to be famous to do this because I’m already famous in the lives of those I touch every day. The most valuable gift you can give others is the gift of your time and genuine presence. And people are always worth that sincere investment, because it’s all done with people.
This article has explored accessible and actionable practices for being a proactive source of encouragement in the lives of those around us. Some of these practices may come easier for you, while others may take a more concerted and deliberate effort to follow through with on a daily basis. The good news is they’re all free to experiment with until you get into the positive habit of doing them every day. After all, it's all with people.
Jonas Cain facilitates positive change initiatives for emerging leaders and their influencers.