Intentional Affirmations to Encourage the Heart October 2017

Intentional Affirmations to Encourage the Heart

Tips and Techniques

In the Practice of Encourage the Heart, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner remind us how important it is to “recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.” They suggest that just saying “please” and “thank you”—powerful and inexpensive rewards—can have a profound effect on employee retention and satisfaction. Indeed, these words of affirmation, which cost nothing, provide an unlimited resource for recognition when formal rewards may be scarce.

My early interest in this area came from my work as a trainer of Motivational Interviewing, a communication style developed over the last 30 years by Drs. William Miller and Stephen Rollnick that has been utilized extensively in the behavioral health and medical fields. The core principles and building blocks of this practice (OARS: Open questions, Affirmations, Reflections, and Summaries) help facilitate and support collaboration and build positive relationships. Although it may be relatively simple to affirm others, it is not something that most of us do intentionally. When we do offer affirmations, often they are spontaneous and generally sparked by behaviors, attributes, or achievements that please us. In fact, our well-behaved and best-performing constituents may receive the bulk (if not all) of our affirmations, and rightly so. However, there is intrinsic value in offering affirmations to our more “difficult” employees or co-workers as well.

In my more recent work with The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® I have used the following exercise and have seen the profound impact intentional affirmations can have. Specifically, how this easy-to-institute communication skill supports the three essential behaviors associated with Encourage the Heart: “makes it a point to let people know about his/her confidence in their abilities,” “praises people for a job well done,” and “gives the members of the team lots of support and appreciation for their contributions.”

To help leaders shift their perspective in understanding that there are strengths within every challenging characteristic that an individual may display. And when those strengths are mined and offered back in an affirmation, a leader’s relationship with others—especially those more challenging constituents—can be substantially changed for the better.

  • Current or emerging leaders 
  • This role-play activity can be used as a demonstration in a large group or in dyads, bringing everyone back together in a large group to debrief. 
About 20 minutes to complete the demonstration and debrief 

100 Words of Affirmation worksheets and pens for each participant, and a flipchart

Part 1:
  1. Ask participants to think of a specific employee, co-worker, constituent, or peer (not an amalgam of employees) who they particularly like. 
  2. Ask for two or three volunteers to name one characteristic of the individual they chose, and write those on the flip chart. 
  3. Once you have three or so characteristics displayed on the flip chart, ask the volunteer participants to identify the strengths that may underlie each characteristic. Sometimes the characteristic is the strength, sometimes it isn’t. 
  4. For each strength (and perhaps a little creativity in adding some context), engage the group in creating an affirmation that passes the authenticity test. 
Here’s one example of how that might look:
Characteristics: cheerful, sense of humor
Strengths: optimistic, doesn’t take self too seriously
  • “You’re a person who remains sunny, even when you’ve encountered difficulties.” 
  • “Even though things aren’t always easy, you manage to keep a sense of perspective and your sense of humor.” 
Part 2:
Repeat the exercise. This time, ask a different set of volunteer participants to choose one of their most difficult employees, co-workers, constituents, or peers. Again, ask each to identify the characteristics of the individual they’ve chosen and what the strengths underlying the behavior might be. Ask the larger group to help form affirmations based on the strengths.

For example:
Characteristics: dissatisfied, demanding
Strengths: discriminating, resourceful
  • “You don’t just accept what folks offer you, you really think about what you want and try to get it.” 
  • “You are very good at mobilizing the resources that you need.” 
Ask participants to think about which employee they would rather work with—the one with the characteristic that gets on their nerves or the one with the underlying strength. Ask them to consider and talk about what having that different perspective about the employee might bring to the relationship. Encourage the group to reflect on how it might change how employees see themselves if leaders or co-workers saw them differently, in a more positive light. Specifically, suggest that leaders use this exercise before meeting with “difficult” employees as preparation for welcoming them with compassion and empathy.

To help with creating affirmations, I provide group participants with a 100 Words of Affirmation worksheet that lists positive characteristics often present in our constituents—even those who are most challenging! This worksheet is especially useful to engage everyone in beginning to shift their thinking about the behaviors we see in others. And when used in conjunction with this role-play exercise, participants begin to realize the valuable gems that are affirmations—precious resources that are frequently underutilized.

Special thanks to Rachel Green, a fellow member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers, who first introduced me to her original affirmations exercise from which this has been adapted, and to Dr. William Miller for his original “100 Characteristics” list from which the “Words of Affirmation” worksheet was adapted.

Alan Lyme, a Certified Master-in-Training for The Leadership Challenge, is Director of Training for the Phoenix Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol prevention and treatment facility in Greenville, South Carolina. He also is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers and can be reached at


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