When I moved to Australia 30 years ago, I learned quickly that a trait I had learned growing up, being an affirming person, sat uncomfortably in Australia with some of my colleagues. I would go out of my way to affirm their teaching, their thinking or their innovations, and all I would accomplish is making people feel uncomfortable. Affirming people directly just seemed to embarrass them.  

I began trying a more indirect form of praise: positive gossip.

Three students with laptop

What I would do (and I continue to do this today) is to listen carefully to others who say positive things about another. Let’s say my friend, Marion, would have spoken to a large group of students and been inspiring. Later, I have overheard the students talking about how inspiring Marion’s talk had been. My practice would then be to go back to Marion and say, ‘I was chatting with a group of students and they were saying how inspiring your talk was today.’ I would then repeat back to her key examples of how they said they had been inspired. I notice almost immediately that rather than be embarrassed, Marion is absolutely chuffed. She believes me and receives the affirmation.

I now regularly practice this type of affirmation.  

Student conversation

I will give you another example.  This works really well with any age group, but especially with those there is a power differential like educator and student; boss and employee.

A young leader that I worked with a couple of years ago was trying very hard to facilitate change among her peers. It was tough going. She had received some negative feedback in a survey, and she was absolutely crushed. She was ready to give up. I had been encouraging her all along, praising her for her innovations and courage, but it had little effect. What did I know;  I was old!  

Formal dinner talking

Shortly after I had seen her one discouraging morning, a group of students came in to see me. They asked me to help support this young leader. They had sensed she was discouraged but had no idea how to encourage her. I asked them to put their concerns in writing to me, noting all the things about her leadership they had appreciated and ensuring they named the particular innovations they appreciated.

Of course, I got their permission to share this letter with her.

Students at College

As she sat in my office and read what these students had said ‘behind her back,’ she wept. She was encouraged, fortified, and truly affirmed for her work. She knew then I wasn’t just trying to make her feel better when I had said she was doing a good job, I was speaking truths that I heard. Not only did she now believe me about the support she had from these students who had bothered to affirm her, she also believed me when I named other students who had said similar affirmations of her leadership.

Positive gossip has powerful effects. What positive gossip about others are you passing on today?