How to Use the 5 Love Languages in Student Affairs

You may pride yourself as being someone who regularly praises your employees, colleagues, and students for their achievements.

But really, an alarming amount of us are actually doing praise wrong. In fact, in some cases, our praise is having the exact opposite effect from what we intended.

In 1995, Gary Chapman published his first book about the five love languages. The book detailed how each of us has two preferred ways of communicating and receiving love and appreciation. In 2011, he released a second book in which took those principles and applied them to the workplace.

Those five languages are words of affirmation, tangible gifts, quality time, acts of service, and physical touch.

The 5 languages of appreciation — words of affirmation, tangible gifts, quality time, acts of service, physical touch — presence blog

As student affairs professionals, giving praise to our students feels like second nature. Our whole job (especially for those of us who work directly with student leaders) is centered around the idea of encouraging, motivating, and supporting their personal growth. We may give our colleagues feedback and praise less regularly, but hey, we’re still doing it — right?

The trouble is, most of our mechanisms heavily rely on only one of the languages of appreciation: words of affirmation.

Before you continue reading, bring into your conscious mind some of the most recent praise you’ve given and received. Think about which language it utilized. Think about that person and whether you think it aligns with their own love or appreciation language.

And finally, think about whether there’s room to implement other languages into your methods of recognition.

To find out what your preferred languages are, you’ll need to take the MBA inventory. It does cost money, so If you are looking for a free option you could take the free love languages test instead.

And as a quick note, be aware that people often have different love language preferences for their workplace and their romantic relationships, because well… reasons.

Words of Affirmation

This is probably the most commonly used appreciation languages, but it’s also the most misunderstood. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone use the phrase “great job” or “keep up the good work.” Do they make you feel particularly inspired? Probably not. These are both well-intentioned phrases but are simply overused and not personal enough.

For affirmations to work, they need to be both specific and sincere.

Now imagine you’re told this:

“Hey Dustin, I just wanted to let you know that I really admire your patience. I’ve seen how much time you dedicate to each student even when you’re really busy with other tasks. I can tell it really makes a difference to them.”

That’s a lot better, right?

For affirmations to work, we need to let people know exactly what it is they did that’s worthy of pointing out, what traits make them great, and how that makes them a valued member of the team.

How to use words of affirmation:

  • Start each one-on-one meeting with an affirmation.
  • Make space in team meetings for shout-outs where people can praise one another for doing great work.
  • If you want to appreciate someone who you don’t manage, make your affirmation when they’re present with their supervisor.
  • Have affirmations posted somewhere people can read them. This could be a noticeboard, a channel in Slack, or a departmental newsletter.
  • Have your institution’s President (or the head of your division) send a personalized email to someone.
  • Have a “kudos” or “sending support” notecard system where people can write their messages and have them delivered to the student or colleague.
  • Have the institution or office for student life social accounts do shoutouts to students who have done something awesome around campus.
  • Host an annual recognition ceremony where people receive awards for their work.
  • Here at Presence, we compiled an appreciation blog for the entire team at the end of the year. This was a simple but effective way to show our thanks without leaving anyone out or putting anyone in the spotlight.


Quality Time

Most of us will already be spending time with each other in group meetings or one-on-ones. But simply being in close proximity is not enough. If it were, you probably wouldn’t need to be reading this blog post.

For quality time to work, it needs to be authentic, purposeful, and non-judgmental.

The real key here is to perfect your active listening skills. If you struggle to get your students to open up during scheduled time, take a look at our blog post on open-ended questions. These will help the conversation dig below the surface.

When spending quality time with people, make sure to be clear about why you wanted to meet with them. Let them know that they have your undivided attention or that you wanted to find out how they’re really doing. For those who want to feel listened to, this will make a big difference.

Also, when scheduling quality time such as evening meals, retreats, or activities on the weekend, be mindful of people’s other time commitments. The students who often deserve a lot of praise and recognition are also the same students who stretch themselves thin with time.

If those students prefer quality time as their primary language of affirmation, try to keep the activities restricted to working hours.

'I got time for that' gif

Ideas for intentional quality time:

  • Treat yourself (and your team) — Create a routine of going for ice cream or coffee with the team after an event, big project, or deadline. You can either use it to do your post-event reflection, share words of affirmation for hard work, or to simply relax and take your mind off things.
  • Schedule a visit — If you manage a team, make a special effort to regularly visit those who appreciate quality time. Ask how things are going, what projects they’re working on, and most importantly — listen!
  • Office pods — Whenever our software development team is working on a new project, we re-arrange the desks so that everyone who is working together is actually close by. If you have staff working on a collaborative project (or students volunteering for an event) make sure they have time scheduled when they can work closely.
  • Schedule a joint lunch — You could either take someone out and pay for their lunch (nicely combines with gift-giving) or arrange to eat your bagged lunches together.
  • Vary meeting size — Large meetings can feel impersonal and not be considered quality time, whereas individual meetings can feel too intense and stressful (especially with someone more senior). Try small group meetings with 5-7 people, for example: a coffee hour with the president.
  • Tea with the dean — have staff or students meet with the dean of student life for tea and cake to talk about things they’re working on or to share the success of a recent project.
  • Moving meetings — Vary the locations of your meetings so that they don’t feel so routine. Taking someone outside for a moving meeting can feel more intimate than a conference room or office setting.
  • Organize a retreat — Take a group of staff and/or students out for a full day of team building. You could use the opportunity to share thanks for all their hard work from the previous year, as well as planning ahead for the following one.
  • Mandatory time-off — Find a day where you can have your team take time off and come together for some non-work related time. This is great for anyone who has outside commitments that could stop them participating at other times.
  • Support your students in outside activities — This could be their other leadership roles or a performance they’re in. It means a lot when someone takes the time to go to something that they’re not required to.


Acts of Service

Not all of the language affirmations have to be verbally communicated. In fact, acts of service is almost the exact opposite. Sometimes people feel the most appreciated when someone takes time to help out with a task on their to-do-list.

Just think about how happy you might have gotten when someone did the dishes or cooked you dinner. The key message here is actions speak louder than words, or more to the point: “Don’t tell me you care; show me.”

To really knock this affirmation language out of the park, you going to need to follow a few game rules. Firstly, you should always ask before you help. Even if someone’s primary language is acts of service, there may be only certain tasks they would appreciate having help with.

Second, your help must be voluntary. If it’s your job to help with post-event clean-up, don’t expect anyone to feel appreciated that you helped out. This is all about going above and beyond the call of duty. Finally, if you’re going to offer help, make sure to actually finish the job!

So long as you follow these steps, you’re all set to hit a home-run.

Mrs. Doubtfire gif - vacuuming and dancing

Inspirational acts of service:

  • Follow-up with a campus office. If one of your students has a project that needs a follow up with an office you’re meeting with, take the time to bring it up.
  • Run a campus errand for someone. For example, you could grab the lunch or coffee for a meeting or event so they don’t have to.
  • Help another department with an event or event clean-up.
  • Cover the student desk, duty hours, or wellness checks.
  • Provide something nice for a colleague (or a colleague’s loved one) who is sick or in the hospital, like a home-cooked meal or volunteering to walk their dog for them.
  • Pick up a package for someone if they’re busy.

Tangible Gifts

Gift-giving is a solid go-to when it comes to saying thanks. It’s a great motivator and helps build relationships. The language of gift-giving has to go beyond things to do with wages or bonuses, though. This language is for those things that are unexpected and personal to the individual.

Gift-giving doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of ways student affairs professionals can provide affirmations using this language.

Cat in a box gif

Actually useful tangible gifts:

  • Put together a thank you or birthday basket with small things you know the person likes.
  • Pay it forward with a free parking pass, because we all know they can add up.
  • Craft a homemade card.
  • Buy them movie tickets or a voucher for your local movie theatre.
  • Make something by hand; we know y’all have your own Pinterest accounts and Etsy stores!
  • Send them a voucher for the dining hall or a gift card to your local coffee shop.
  • If your institution has a “no gift cards” policy, perhaps you could improvise with vouchers for campus offices, like the bookstore, dining hall, or campus recreation.
  • Keep track of your colleague’s favorite snacks and surprise them with it when they complete a big project or are feeling down.
  • Encourage them to take time away from screens with a gift card to your local bookstore.
  • Deliver treats to your RAs before they start on their nightly rounds.
  • When your student leaders or office workers graduate, gift them business card holders to help them make (and keep) connections.
  • Make a donation to a relevant charity in honor or memory of someone (make sure you come up with a creative way to let them know).


Physical Touch

For any workplace — and especially when working with students — physical touch is obviously a tricky area. For most celebratory situations (and in true Presence style), we believe a high-five is one of the best motivators.

You could also switch it up and make your own top-secret handshake or good ol’ fashioned fist-bump. In fact, fist-bumps are scientifically healthier for you (they transmit 1/20th the amount of bacteria that a handshake does… you’re welcome!)

And if you’re still not sure, don’t forget that you can communicate in any of the top-two preferred affirmation languages. So just find out what their second option is and use that!

Dog fist bump gif

Cater to the Individual

If there is one thing that you should take away from this blog post, it should be this: Each individual will want to share and receive appreciation in very different ways. In fact, two people who even have the same preferred language may respond completely differently to that method of appreciation.

An extroverted person who prefers affirmation may relish the opportunity to receive an award at a public ceremony, whilst that might be nightmarish for an introverted person even though they have the same language preference.

Instead, the introvert may prefer the same recognition but in a one-on-one setting. Take the time to understand which language your colleagues and students prefer and try and cater to those as much as possible.

I’m not expecting you to come away from this as an expert in affirmation (I certainly am not). Everyone has individual preferences which can change depending on the setting, the person, and over time.

The real moral of this story is that if we broaden our minds when it comes to acknowledging people’s hard work and make the effort to understand what makes them feel really appreciated, it’ll change how we engage in the workplace.

If you have any great stories where the 5 languages have really helped someone at your institution, let me know on Twitter at @LucasBurh or @themoderncampus.

Luke Burton

About the author: Learn how we can help get your students involved.