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Julie Exline, Ph.D.
Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

The Quiet Power of Encouragement

A little boost of encouragement can lift our spirits and keep us moving forward.

My recent attempt at surfing yielded some powerful life lessons, both in terms of facing fears and avoiding regrets. Now I'd like to turn my focus to a key person who shaped my whole experience in the waves: my surfing instructor. Today, at the start of the Thanksgiving season, I’d like to share a bit about why I’m so grateful to her.

Of course, my instructor did what any good surfing teacher would do: She provided the basic information that I needed to work with my surfboard. She showed me how to position myself, how to transition from paddling to standing, and how to fall safely in the shallow water. She was also vigilant about protecting me, doing her part to ensure that I wouldn’t be injured. In all of these fundamentals, then, my instructor showed herself to be competent and effective.

And yet she did so much more than that. What really set this young woman apart was her ongoing willingness to help and encourage me. For example, given my limited upper body strength and a decided lack of flexibility in my neck and back, I found it very hard to maintain the position required for paddling. When my instructor saw this obvious problem, she quietly offered me a gift of grace: She gently but firmly hooked her foot on my board and began to tow me out into the waves.

OK, I'll admit that this was humbling for me. It was so painfully apparent that I needed the help. I couldn’t do it on my own. I came so close to being overtaken by a dark storm cloud of shame, which would have tainted the whole experience. But instead, I was presented with a lifeline for my emotions, a balm that soothed me and my bruised ego: It was my instructor’s positive attitude.

Although she would have been perfectly justified in grumbling, rolling her eyes, or at least giving me a heavy sigh, she did none of these things. Instead, she presented the situation as though towing me around was just exactly what she wanted to do. Although I don't remember her specific words, this is the message that she conveyed to me: "This is great! I need some more practice doing this. And I’ll get a good workout.”

Because of the grace that my instructor offered me, I didn’t have to struggle through the waves alone. I was able to put my head down periodically and rest. I didn’t have to hold my body up in an uncomfortable position for too long, and I didn’t have to waste precious time and energy through laborious, inefficient paddling.

My instructor's consistent encouragement and support steadied me throughout my surfing adventure. When I missed a wave or wiped out, she was gentle and patient in response. She didn’t berate me for my errors, nor did she show a trace of frustration with me or my screw-ups. She would simply watch for the next decent wave, give my board a little push, and then coach me through the steps to stand up.

Within just a few minutes, after I had managed to get to my feet a few times, she actually said, “You’ve got it!” She spoke as though I had already succeeded, and now it was just a matter of refining my skills. Wow. Talk about seeing the glass as half full!

All that I had in my glass were a few drops of accomplishment. But she chose to focus on the sweetness of those drops, not on how comically small they were or how much of the glass remained empty. And because of her emphasis on what I had achieved, I was able to join her in celebrating my successes, modest as they were.

Although it can be hard on our pride to admit it, we can all use a boost at times.

And what an amazing gift we can offer to others through encouragement! When we “en-courage,” it’s as though we actually infuse courage into another person. Encouragement can provide people with strength to look ahead, move forward, and reach for the next goal. The whole emotional tone of a tough situation can be transformed through encouragement. Somehow things seem a little brighter.

Some people offer encouragement in a boisterous way. They dole out lavish and effusive praise, bear hugs, and hearty cheers or applause. Other encouragers turn to techniques that are quiet and subtle: a soft smile, a kind word, or a light touch on the hand. But regardless of the form that encouragement takes, it carries amazing potential—the potential to lift a person's spirits while helping them to stay focused on their goals.

Of course, we can't live on a steady diet of praise. In order to improve, we need some awareness of our weaknesses and mistakes, too.

My instructor did give me practical tips to start correcting my errors: “Remember to keep that back foot flat on the board.” “You stood up a little too soon.” Mercifully, though, she didn’t point out all of my flaws all at once. She simply drew my attention to the next thing that I could work on, while remembering to praise what I was doing right.


When I think back on my surfing lesson now, the memory is one that sparkles and shimmers in my mind.

And so much of that bright energy came from my instructor—and especially from the gifts of encouragement that she gave me that day.

Shaka, my friend—and thank you.

About the Author
Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

Julie Exline
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