Speaking the Love Languages: Words of Affirmation
Today, we’ll be diving into the Love Language of Words of Affirmation, and we can affirm you’ll learn a lot.
(By the way, if you haven’t read the introductory article in this series, “The Myth of the In-Love Experience,” you should probably do that first for some background. Also, check out these articles on Quality Time and Receiving Gifts.)
Words of Affirmation might be one of the most difficult of the Love Languages to learn because language is incredibly nuanced and personal. Everyone has a different vocabulary and style of speaking. Moreover, some people have a much harder time putting their thoughts and feelings into words than others.
Words are powerful. Period.
The Psychology of Affirming Words & Positive Reinforcement
In this chapter, author Gary Chapman outlines a concept of behavioral psychology: positive reinforcement. In operant conditioning, reinforcement refers to the practice of applying a consequence to certain behavior in order to strengthen or weaken that behavior. In the case of Words of Affirmation, Chapman points out that “compliments are far greater motivators than nagging words.”
If you’ve ever trained a dog or raised a child, you might be familiar with the concept of positive reinforcement. When your dog performs the action you want, when you want, you reward the dog with a treat every time until it’s clear that the dog has made the connection between your command and the behavior.
Studies have shown that between reinforcement and punishment, and between positive and negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement has the greatest efficacy in establishing or changing a behavior. In other words, people learn faster and better from being rewarded than they do from being punished.
Be Encouraging & Empathetic
“The object of love is not getting something you want but doing something for the well-being of the one you love. It is a fact, however, that when we receive affirming words we are far more likely to be motivated to reciprocate,”
Chapman points out that the word “encourage” means the action of giving someone courage. “We lack courage,” Chapman explains, “and that lack often hinders us from accomplishing the positive things that we would like to do.”
Essentially, the dialect of Encouraging Words means that someone understands love specifically through words of empowerment and motivation. “Most of us have more potential than we will ever develop. What holds us back is often courage,” says Chapman.
When you make an effort to be your partner’s personal cheerleader as they work towards their goals, you’re really communicating 2 things:
- That you understand your partner, and
- That you care personally about your partner and the things that are important to them.
Avoid Pushing Your Loved Ones
That said, there is a big difference between encouraging your partner and making your partner feel guilty. People who need Encouraging Words to understand love need you to encourage them in the things that they care about.
If you try to encourage a loved one by constantly reminding them of a shortcoming in an attempt to “push” them towards their full potential, your words “will come across as judgmental and guilt-inducing. They express not love but rejection.
“Encouragement requires empathy” in order for that encouragement to be genuine and effective. People who communicate and understand love through Words of Affirmation will always be able to tell when you aren’t being genuine, which brings me to my next point.
Watch Your Tone
This dialect is more about the tone of voice than it is about the words themselves. Most of us know what it’s like to misinterpret someone based on the tone of voice or be misunderstood because our tone implied an alternate meaning. The tone of voice is equally if not more important when speaking with partners and loved ones, because, as Chapman has found, people “will usually interpret our message[s] based on our tone of voice, not the words we use.”
Humans communicate in so many different ways. As we mature, we learn to use all the information available to us to be able to determine the intent behind the words being spoken to us, and tone of voice provides a wealth of information.
When your words don’t match your tone, the listener is forced to draw their own conclusions, sometimes resulting in confusion. No one is a mind-reader! Ultimately, it is your responsibility to use all the resources you have to communicate effectively, so keep yourself in check.
Communicate Love Through Negative Emotions
In the event that misunderstandings do occur (and they will!), a crucial thing to know about this Love Language is that “we can share the pain, sadness, and even anger in a kind manner, and that will be an expression of love.”
When your loved one is honest with you about something you’ve done to hurt or upset them, the best thing you can do to communicate love is to suppress the urge to defend yourself and simply just listen to your partner.
“You [need to] seek understanding and reconciliation, not to prove your own perception as the only logical way to interpret what has happened. That is mature love.”
It is only once you’ve adopted this mindset that talking through the issue and reaching a resolution without that much collateral damage will be possible. When someone whose primary Love Language is Words of Affirmation attempts to communicate their feelings with you, even if it is difficult for you to hear, do your best to keep in mind that their honesty is their way of “taking steps to build intimacy by sharing [their] feelings.” Allowing yourself to be reactive, angry, and upset is not going to communicate love to your partner. It’s going to do the opposite.
On the other side of things, if your partner has done something to upset or hurt you, the best thing you can do to speak love through words is to allow yourself to forgive them and move on.
“Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment,” explains Chapman. “Forgiveness is an expression of love.”
Related article: Settling Conflict with Communication
Remember that Love is a Choice
Chapman offers one last helpful piece of advice for speaking Words of Affirmation: “Love makes requests, not demands.”
If you read the first article in this series, you might remember that we discussed the myth of the “in-love” experience; in other words, the myth of love as an overwhelming, all-consuming, reactionary “need.” But emotional love, the type of love we do need, is a choice. That’s exactly why you cannot make demands of your loved ones and expect to communicate or receive emotional love.
“We cannot get emotional love by way of demand. My spouse may in fact comply with my demands, but it is not an expression of love. It is an act of fear or guilt or some other emotion, but not love. Thus, a request creates the possibility for an expression of love, whereas a demand suffocates that possibility.”
Introducing the element of obligation into a relationship completely closes both parties off to opportunities to communicate meaningful expressions of love. Instead, “give guidance,” suggests Chapman, “not ultimatums.”
Words of Affirmation Do Not Need to be Spoken Aloud
If you have trouble communicating Words of Affirmation verbally (like I do!), it can be just as effective (if not more) to try writing your Words of Affirmation. Try writing a handwritten (or even a typed) letter, leave a short but heartfelt post-it note left on the bathroom mirror before bed so your loved one will see it first thing in the morning, or send a sweet and unprompted text message. “Written words have the benefit of being read over and over again.”
As we finish off, consider: how do you use words to communicate love? Has someone ever said or written something to you that you’ve never forgotten?
Related article: Your Love Language, Based on Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type