My New Year's resolution has been to become more mindfully optimistic. It's both easier than harder than I thought. Partly to keep motivated, I'm reflecting on an inspiring quote each day during 2016.
I've also been thinking about how to support other people in their resolutions. So I came up with an exercise in empathy--thinking about not just what you want to say, but how it will be heard, and therefore what not to say.
With a bit of a hat tip to the late, great Zig Ziglar, here are seven phrases to avoid if you truly want to be supportive.
1. Awkward compliments.
Losing weight is the number-one New Year's resolution for Americans. Still, even when people succeed at trimming their waistlines, they would probably prefer if your recognition of their achievement emphasized their success rather than the problem the had to overcome. That's why "You look great!" is a much better compliment than "You've lost weight!"
2. Net negative compliments.
"You look great for your age!" someone told me a few years ago. (Hey, I'm only in my 40s!) "For your age" is a qualifier that suggests you don't think the person actually does in fact look great. In the book The Game by Neil Strauss, they call this"negging"--basically offering a put down disguised briefly as a compliment. Better simply to drop the qualifier.
3. Defeatist comments.
If someone isn't living up to their New Year's resolution, they probably don't need you to point it out to them. So observations like, "I thought you were going to try to lose weight!" while they might charitably be the product of tough love, are likely misguided. A better idea? Maybe something like, "You've chosen a hard objective. How can I help you achieve it?"
4. Lack of diligence.
This one is similar to defeatism--perhaps worse, in fact. Comments like "You just need to work harder," might charitably be intended to suggest that the person's success is closer than he or she believes. However, they are just as likely to be perceived as a put-down. A better option would be to say something reassuring, along the lines of, "It's hard, but I know you have it in you to succeed."
5. Sour grapes.
"You're better off without him," for example, when someone ends a bad relationship. Your heart is probably in the right place here, but similar to a few of the examples above, this kind of compliment contains a criticism. The suggestion that the person wasn't previously able to see that he or she had settled for someone unworthy doesn't exactly reflect well on him or her. Better phrasing would focus on the positive things the person has to offer.
6. Wishing luck.
What's wrong with wishing luck? Well, the simple phrase "good luck" can carry with it a series of different connotations: a sincere if slightly inarticulate hope for success ("Good luck!") for example, versus a sarcastic suggestion that you don't think the person is truly likely to succeed ("Good luck with that." A better alternative might be to say something that suggests your confidence in the person's abilities, rather than suggesting that they'll need good fortune.
When a friend fails at something, you might want to comfort by saying that it wasn't worth the effort anyway. Once again--heart in the right place, but this is an example of the brain choosing the wrong words. Focus instead on the positive things that the person has going for them, rather than suggesting that they shouldn't have chosen the goal to begin with. That way you avoid emphasizing failure or suggesting the person doesn't know enough to choose worth goals.
These are all tricky, I'm the first to admit, because the road to self-improvement can be full of emotional potholes. The point overall isn't to become a slave to political correctness or hurt feelings, but instead to resolve yourself to focus on the positive, and to develop empathy for those you're trying to support. Those are good habits to develop in any context.