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How to Deliver a Pep Talk That’s Actually Motivating

You know what’s kind of annoying? When you’re trying to psych someone up for something they’re about to face — a job interview, say, or meeting their significant other’s parents for the first time — and rather than accept and absorb your encouragement, they keep poking holes in it.

I know this because I do it all the time, and friends and family alike have informed me, with varying degrees of gentleness, that it is indeed kind of annoying. Still, so many of the lines we typically use in our pep talks feel more like platitudes than actual sources of motivation:

“You’ve got this!” Okay, but how do you know? You don’t. We both know you don’t.

“Sure I do! I love you. I’m rooting for you.” I mean — I’d be kind of offended if you weren’t. And I appreciate the rooting, but unless you have powers I’m unaware of, it’s not going to have any meaningful effect.

“Seriously, they’re going to love you.” Nope. I irrationally dislike a ton of people for stupid reasons. Who’s to say the person you’re trying to impress won’t decide to hate you based on, I don’t know, your shoes? Or your clumsy attempt at a joke?

In other words, even the most well-intended pep talks can pretty easily fall flat. But a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance highlighted one way to make sure they don’t: by emphasizing the pep-talk recipient’s personal agency. An “autonomy supportive” approach, the study authors noted, helped participants feel like they were under less pressure and that they had more choices in the situation in question. It also fostered a greater sense of closeness with the speaker, making them more invested in what was being said.

It’s a concept known to motivation researchers as self-determination theory — the idea that you’ll be more motivated when you feel your fate is in your own hands. It makes sense: We most need encouragement when we feel we’re up against circumstances out of our control. No one does well with uncertainty; it’s stressful, sometimes scary, and utterly natural to feel powerless in the face of ambiguity.

The antidote, then, may be breaking a situation down into smaller chunks and zeroing in on the ones you can do something about. “You’ve got this,” while dripping with pump-up optimism, is not a line that accomplishes that. Instead, try something like: “Your talking point about that thing on your résumé are so well-rehearsed!” Or maybe: “You’ve prepped so many good questions to ask his mom about, it’ll be easy to keep the conversation going.” They’re not the flashiest compliments, but they’re grounded ones. They’re based in facts. They’re steadying. And for someone awash in a sea of nerves, it’s a relief to have something to grab on to.

How to Deliver a Pep Talk That’s Actually Motivating