In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of Jim Thompson, the founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA).

“The mission of the PCA is to emphasize that youth sports should not be about winning at all costs; it should be about learning life lessons.

The PCA holds positive-coaching seminars for youth sports coaches. At the seminars, trainers use the analogy of an “Emotional Tank” to get coaches to think about the right ratio of praise, support, and critical feedback. The Emotional Tank is like the gas tank of an automobile. If your car’s tank is empty, you can’t drive very far. If your Emotional Tank is empty, you are not going to be able to perform at your best.

After the Emotional Tank analogy is introduced, the trainers begin an exercise. First, they ask the coaches to imagine that the person next to them has just flubbed a key play in the game. The coaches are challenged to say something to the person to drain his Emotional Tank. Since clever put-downs are a staple of many sports interactions, this exercise is embraced with notable enthusiasm. Thompson says, “The room fills with laughter as coaches get into the exercise, sometimes with great creativity.”

Then the coaches are asked to imagine that someone else has made the same mistake, but now they’re in charge of filling that person’s Emotional Tank instead of draining it. This generates a more muted response. Thompson says, “The room often gets very quiet, and you finally hear a feeble, ‘Nice try!'”

Observing their own behavior, the coaches learn the lesson – how they found it easier to criticize than to support, to think of ten clever insults rather than a single consolation.”

This, by the way, is not just true in sports. I’ve seen this played out in teams, businesses, churches, marriages, parents with their kids, kids with their parents – you name it.

Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-Fil-A, once remarked to a group of his leaders, “How do you know if someone needs encouragement? If they are breathing.”

And yet the tendency to be critical rather than encouraging is one that most of us struggle with, and I find this to be true with leaders more often than not.

What if we celebrated the wins by our team members (even the small ones) with the same enthusiasm that we critique them?

What if we called out the great things someone does with the same passion we call out what they’re doing wrong?

What if we used our words to encourage our spouse instead of tear them down?

What if we poured encouragement into our team members like gasoline into the tank of a car?

Encouragement is free. But the benefits of filling others’ Emotional Tanks over time are beyond measure.

Who will you encourage today? What wins will you celebrate?

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