When my son was in the second grade, I volunteered in his class. It was a classroom with eight very gifted, yet very challenging, young boys. One particular afternoon, one of the little boys in the class was particularly cranky and angry. I asked the teacher, “How do you reach him?” And she said, “It’s easy. I just give him a genuine compliment.” I replied, “How do you do that on a day like today? He hasn’t done anything to compliment.” And she said, “I come up with something, even if it’s just, ‘I like your t-shirt,’ or ‘I like the way you part your hair.'” Incredulous, I repeated that to her, “I like the way you part your hair?!” “Yes, on the days he’s so upset, so angry, so downtrodden, on those days he’ll accept any compliment. He’s so hungry for someone to notice something positive about him, to throw him a bone, even saying, ‘I like the way you part your hair’ is helpful to him.”
Wow. I found this amazing, and I gave it a try. I looked for big, important things that he and the other students were doing, but when I couldn’t find any, I would say something simple like, “I’m glad you’re thinking about the assignment. I can see the wheels are turning in your head.” Or, “You have your paper out. That’s the first step.”
I find this strategy to be true in my work life as well. Sometimes it’s really difficult for me to find something positive to say to some of the people I have been hired to coach. They don’t want to be there. They don’t want coaching. They never signed up for it. They’re not really motivated by the possibility of growth. In these moments, I say the simplest things, the most obvious things. “Thank you for showing up. Thank you for giving it a try. Thank you for considering what I’m saying.”
Unfortunately, the negative stuff takes up more of our time and our energy. But when we focus on the positive, the positives grow. Here are some things for you to notice:
I like that you followed up.
I like that you started the conversation.
Thank you for drawing it to my attention.
Thank you for doing the research that you’ve done.
Thank you for telling me that you’re going to need some help.
Thank you for letting me know you need more time.
And if all else fails you can always resort to, “I like the way you part your hair.” It will work for all but the bald ones.