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We're trained to be either honest or positive but not both

I'm good at being candid because of my conflict-loving personality. But often what I pass off as honesty is just an excuse for me to rip someone apart in order to make myself feel better. This is both nature and nurture. I inherited my dad's perceptiveness and critical nature along with my mom's quick temper. Awesome combo. My upbringing didn't help either. I often share the story of a basketball game when I was 10 years old. My dad told me I ran around like a chicken with it's head cut off. Around the same age, I remember a teacher trying to discipline me for insulting another student. I reasoned with her that if sticks and stones can break people's bones but names can never hurt someone, then my words were harmless. I don't remember her reaction to my argument. And like many bullies, I could dish it out but I couldn't take it.

Throughout high school and college, my "honesty" helped me lose friends and alienate people. Relational pain   persuaded me to try a different tact. Tell positive lies. "No, honey, it doesn't look like you've gained any weight." Unfortunately I'm not a very convincing liar and often the greatest positivity I could muster was a slight nod wand a grunt. That's about the time I started grinding my teeth.

My upbringing as the child of well-educated Asian immigrants is not unique. I've noticed many of my peers are also quite deficient in encouraging others. The week before in our men's book club, our topic was delivering honest positives. Someone commented that guys giving compliments to other guys is unmanly; it's awkward and unnatural. I can see where he's coming from but the fact that encouragement is both beneficial and counter-cultural is even more reason to do it. And even if your personality is conflict-avoiding, delivering honest positives requires experience, character, and skill. Lastly, it's also a game concept.

Garner writes about a principle of behavioral theory where reinforced responses recur. If we want to increase a certain behavior in others, we can reward it through encouragement or asking questions, etc. If we want to decrease a certain behavior in others, we discourage the tendency by ignoring it. Feed the good, starve the bad. The important thing is not to bring any attention to the bad.

Garner shares an example of a friend who had few serious emotional difficulties and yet during their lunches would always complain about something - the weather, his job, his ex-wife, etc. So Garner tried smiling, nodding, and asking questions when his friend made optimistic remarks (telling about how a neighbor helping him fix his car or running into an old friend). But when he started complaining, Garner would pick at his sandwich or stare at a passer-by. Eventually, his friend became much more upbeat as a result. The net is that it's much more effective to reward behavior you like than to punish behavior you don't like. If only more Asian tiger moms understood this.

The other stuff Garner writes about I'm already aware of and working on. 1) Be specific in your compliments: "William, you rock in that purple blazer" and 2) Say the person's name: I never do this but I can see how it can be beneficial because I love it when people say my name.

One helpful thing I learned was helping other people to receive your honest positive by following up your encouragement with a question. "Your jump shot is consistent and your stroke looks really natural. How did you develop it?" This gives the receiver an opportunity to respond graciously without having to deflect the praise or change the subject. I haven't employed this as much because I enjoy watching people squirm after I say something positive.

However, the most helpful thing I've learned about being honestly positive didn't come from the book. It's something I learned from a therapist. Focus on character and the process rather than performance or results. What we praise reveals what we value. For overachieving Asian Americans, we praise performance and results because we value them over character and process.

I have a friend who attempted a triathlon without knowing how to swim properly.  The race announcer was a friend and even publicly hyped him during the swim portion. My freestyle-challenged friend performed miserably - cramping up and quitting the race after doggy paddling through the lake in last place. During his post-race celebration dinner, I sat wordlessly grinding my teeth in exasperation. Years later, I look back on the event with fondness. I told him recently that I should have said "I loved your audacity and shamelessness in attempting a race like that. I'm going cherish the memory for the rest of my life". I love how the grace of God can redeem my critical nature for good. My gift in finding weakness can be deployed instead to identifying strengths. And I now enjoy the challenge of finding the positive rather than the negative.


  1. Follow up encouragement with a question. That is genius. I am going to use that one.


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