The difference between encouragement and praise

vector picture showing a woman choosing between different types of mindsets: scared, sad, or happy

December 20, 2023

Although it may sound too simplistic, most interpersonal problems are communication problems. In my daily client work, I come across impediments in grounded, assertive and empathetic communication. It is no secret that we are not given proper training and education in effective communication when we grow up, so no wonder we are thrust into adult life giving our best shot at clearly expressing our opinions, attitudes and responses.

This article will explore what encouragement is, how it differs from praise, and how to apply it in daily examples that span across all areas of life. As you read on, the question you should not lose sight of is “What is the attitude you are expressing with your communication: building others up or putting them down?”

What is encouragement?

The definition I am most fond of is that encouragement represents an attitude that entices others towards a genuine belief that they have the resources they need to manage their conundrums. This exceeds what we do or say. It is an entire demeanour that comes from within. Because it comes from within, it requires a bit of introspection on our side, hence the question of building others up vs putting them down. If we want to be encouraging towards someone whom we feel envy, pity or even resentment towards, our emotions are likely to get in the way.

What is praise, then?

Praise is when we express approval, favourable judgement, or glorification by the attribution of perfection. The consequence is that others become “hooked” on our acceptance and there is little space left for the expression of human imperfection. 

The differences between encouragement and praise can be quite subtle. Doing an internal check with yourself to ascertain the root purpose for wanting to say what you want to say will be of great help to make the distinction on the spot. My clients and I often look at what was the out-of-awareness intention in random interactions and the conclusions are often surprising. 

Hallmarks and examples

1. Encouragement focuses on the present, praise focuses on the past or future. 

Dwelling on someone’s past behaviours, particularly if those haven’t been to a desired standard, increases the chances for acrimony in the relationship. Probably, the person has not forgotten the behaviours that generated the friction, even if they might not show it. So if the standard for “not like this” has been established, it is important to notice improvements in present behaviour, no matter how minor they might seem. That goes a long way for people who have not received lots of encouragement. 


Jen is managing someone who recently struggled with performance issues, currently working on a new project. Jen notices that the managee is asking more questions than in the past. If Jen wants to say something encouraging, she could go for “It seems that you’re invested in making this project work, by the questions you’ve been asking”. 

On the other hand, a remark like “Good! Now keep it up!” can send the message that Jen failed to notice the managee’s efforts and she doubts whether there are chances for sustained improvement. 

2. Encouragement addresses the deed, praise addresses the doer.

We’ve all heard the phrase “focus on the deed, not the doer” and it is true it has also been used as a pretext for avoiding healthy confrontations when something goes wrong. At its root, it aims at highlighting specific behaviours as a source of feedback, instead of making sweeping statements about someone’s personality. Those value judgements can turn into labels that become very hard to shake off. 


Saying to your child “Good job” instead of “Good boy/girl” can make a big difference in what the child perceives as being the desired standard. It would be even more powerful if you honed in on a specific part of what the child did that you like. For example, if your child comes home from school with a drawing, you can say “I like how you used those blue and green colours there” – it can increase the child’s sense of personal capability. Avoid using what the child produces as a description of the child’s entire personality.

3. Encouragement teaches self-evaluation and how to think, whilst praise teaches dependence on the evaluation of others and what to think.

Because encouragement is the inner belief that the other is equipped with the needed resources to cope with life’s challenges, what we express to the other helps them perform an act of self-evaluation. It stimulates others to assess for themselves what is well and what could be improved. When we direct praise towards others, we invite them to an unconscious dynamic of “only if you are like this will you receive my approval”. 


You just finished redecorating your home, after months of research, excruciating drives to shops, delivery delays, and plenty of frustrations. You call your older sibling, whose opinion you hold in high esteem, to visit you and “inaugurate” everything. Your sibling could tell you something encouraging like “That’s such a nice colour on the sofa, I wonder how the tweed will hold up with your 2 dogs”. Notice how you’re just gently invited to reflect on whether getting a tweed sofa was the best choice – the thinking is up to you. If your sibling only thought you redecorated nicely because it matched what they suggested, it could lead to friction.

4. Encouragement recognises effort and improvement, praise recognises only the complete, perfect product. 

Encouragement doesn’t come with the expectation that everything should be perfect all the time, so it becomes easier to focus on the process behind the endeavour, highlighting points of progress, and acknowledging what could be done better next time. When we make remarks that stress the importance of doing it right or winning, we fail to recognise that mastery is a process, stoking unhealthy competition. 


Your friend signed up for a charitable squash competition and won second prize. Telling your friend something like “How do you feel about the money you raised for charity?” can stimulate reflecting on what was achieved, increasing self-esteem. On the other hand, saying something along the lines of “Look at all of the other ones you beat” places too much importance on the act of competing and winning.

Learning more about the skills of encouragement

I firmly believe encouraging behaviours can be taught and are impacted by our own level of self-esteem. If that is low, we become so absorbed in our own internal world that we stop looking at others. How could we recognise effort, when all we’ve been taught is that only the best goes? Or how easy would it be to self-evaluate our choices, when we’ve always been under the microscope of a harsh, internalised voice? Understanding yourself is the key to opening up towards others. 

My work focuses on fostering self-reliance by helping you minimise the impact of the non-controllable and maximise the benefits of the controllable. There are few things more encouraging than that. I’d like to invite you to gently reflect on your beliefs and assumptions that hinder you from focusing on the present, addressing the behaviours, inciting self-evaluation and recognising effort in others. If you want to understand more, I’d love to work with you. Get in touch for a complimentary consultation call.