Put in a good word

I think it would be fair to say that January has not, so far, been exactly characterised by balmy breezes and long, sunny days here in the UK. Not to put too fine a point on it, it has mostly been grey, cold, damp and depressing. Yesterday morning I peeled myself out of bed and put on a considerable number of layers, topped with a waterproof (because of course it was raining, it being Britain and all), before forcing myself out of the door to go into town. Because I needed groceries, and even horrible weather must be faced with courage – if not good grace – when one is short of food.

In the lovely town where I live, the walk to the shops leads directly through a large, beautiful Victorian park. And when I got there, what should I see but a huge number of determined individuals in lycra, tracksuits, trainers, hoodies, even shorts, running. In the cold and the rain, at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning.

Now, I know a lot of people who run. I am not one of those people, but whilst part of me thinks they are utterly cracked to put themselves through all that unless there is at least some sort of bloodthirsty dinosaur chasing them, I respect their decision to do serious cardiovascular exercise on a regular basis. It turns out that the run I encountered is a weekly event, a timed Park Run that is free to join and open to all. An impressive number of people had turned out, some with their kids, some with their dogs, and one or two pushing sleeping babies in pushchairs. The park many things, but flat is most certainly not one of them. I bet those babies got heavier on the way round.

Impressive as this courageous display of exercise was, the thing that really struck me – the thing I wanted to write about – was the volunteers posted around the route. Since I had to walk across the park at a diagonal to get down into town, I crossed the route several times and met a number of the stewards who were keeping an eye on their charges and ensuring that pathways stayed clear. They were wrapped up against the chill like I was. They were also smiling, waving, and shouting out words of encouragement to the passing runners, whooping and cheering and egging them on as they slogged their way past.

I found this incredibly and unexpectedly moving. The simple act of agreeing to watch, of being cheerful and encouraging, was making it possible for all these people to be there and run. And not must making it possible: encouraging and helping them to do it in the first place.

Scrabble tiles on a rack spelling out 'encourage'
And I found myself reflecting on the way that praise, encouragement and criticism are woven into our everyday lives. I don’t know about others, but I’ve certainly worked for organisations who have been fantastically good at thanking their staff for their efforts on particular events or projects, and offered kind but constructive criticism of things that haven’t worked. I’ve also worked for organisations who seem to think that none of their staff need such feedback, and leave individuals feeling unappreciated – or worse, noticed only when things don’t go as they should – which inevitably leads to terrible morale and a growing sense of division between levels of management. Schools are often accused now of being so keen to reward their students for every little achievement that congratulations have become almost meaningless. How accurate that is, I wouldn’t like to say, but there is of course a balance the other way as well, and in some cases, encouraging rather than simply praising at the end of a process, can be as important if not more so. Universities also have to face this issue, and it can be difficult to be suitably encouraging in a lecture to 250 students.

However, getting back to those people in the park, I found myself thinking about the mindset and attitude required to encourage. Quite simply, to be that person standing in the park, in the cold and the rain, smiling and cheering people on, even if you’ve never met them, takes great generosity. These stewards were being generous with their time – not just for standing there at all, but because they chose to do more than just stand there. They chose to empathise with the runners. They chose to engage with people whom they did not actually know. And they did so in the spirit of wanting to help, encourage, and praise.

That, I think, is something that we can all learn from, whether we are senior managers, teachers, lecturers, parents, friends, co-workers. To encourage takes time and thought if it’s going to be meaningful; it also takes empathy and (particularly for the less confident) an amount of bravery to speak to someone you might not know very well to tell them how well you think they’re doing. We can feel awkward in complimenting others in this way, and that can stop us doing it. Well, it’s still January, and it’s still a new year. So perhaps a good resolution to make before the end of the month would be to try to say something encouraging or positive to at least one person a week. I have a feeling that if we did, we’d all benefit from it.

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