How to Give a Compliment

Ok, the focus of this podcast is about inspiring people. It’s about finding that something that makes you want to do your part in making the world a better place. However, one of the points that we try to make, time and time again, is that it doesn’t always have to be some grand plan or event to make the world a better place. It can be a bunch of little things that together gang up on the darkness and bring just a little light into the world.

A compliment can do just that. It can brighten someone’s day or even their week. It might give someone the boost of confidence they need to do something great. It might give someone hope who is at the end of their rope. You never know what that compliment can do, but just that kind word, that bit of support, or that needed attention may just be the thing that makes a difference and it costs virtually nothing to give. Studies have shown that compliments trigger the same “happiness” response area of the brain that would be triggered by receiving a monetary reward or even sex. No wonder it feels so good to receive an honest compliment.

But if you are like me, sometimes you struggle giving that compliment. And for me, that is usually because I am not sure how to say it. I want the compliment to come off right, and if I think about it too much, I can usually find a way to make it awkward. So I did some research for my own benefit, but I thought I would share it with everyone, because really, we need to be complimenting each other more often. It really does make a difference.

Obviously, there is a difference in how you would compliment a co-work versus a loved one. Or a friend versus a stranger. These are general rules I have pulled together, so they may need to be tweaked a bit, depending on the circumstances.

  • Be Sincere: Think about the compliment- is it sincere? False compliments rarely ring true. You can almost always find something to compliment a person about. Are they doing a good job? Do they have an attribute you admire (professionalism, sense of humor, compassion, sense of style)? Is there something about them that speaks to you (their laugh, their love of animals, how good they are with kids, how kind they are to wait staff)?
  • Compliments Should Be More Than Skin Deep: Compliments on appearance are nice, but they are also the ones that can often go badly. The number of sexual harassment complaints that were started off by someone giving a compliment on another person’s appearance cannot be understated. Safe things like “I like your shoes” are probably not going to get you into trouble, but complimenting someone’s dress or slacks might. It is a lot harder to go wrong with complimenting a non-physical attribute or a more neutral one- “Your smile just lights up your face.”
  • Compliments Should Convey Impact: Compliment someone on how they are making a difference. Instead of just saying good job, say how they are making a difference. “You make my job so much easier by the way you organize the files.” “I love that you use upcycled products in your designs.” “It is so nice to come home and be heard after a crappy day. Thank you.” “You put so much energy into your lessons. No wonder the kids say you are their favorite teacher.” Let them know they are making an impact, whether it is for you or someone else. Everybody deserves to know that what they do matters to someone.
  • Focus On The Other Person: Keep the compliment about the other person. The focus on the compliment should be about the other person, and not a reflection or humble brag about yourself. When the comment you make also focuses on you, it diminishes the impact. In certain cases, it may even negate the entire compliment. “I wouldn’t have done it this way, but it seems to really work for you. Good job.” The compliment is that they did a good job, but it is almost completely negated by the “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” That creates a whole question of what is wrong with the way they did it? Why wouldn’t you do it the way I did? It’s completely unnecessary. Just give the compliment.
  • Don’t Put Yourself Down: Similarly, don’t put yourself down when you give a compliment. “You do such beautiful work, I could never do something like that. I am all thumbs.” While the intent is to put the person up on a higher level than you, it can make the other person feel awkward or feel that they have to boost you up in return. Instead of putting yourself down, elaborate on the compliment. “You do such beautiful work. I love the colors you pick and the detail work.”
  • Don’t Wait: Make the compliment when you think about it. If you tell yourself that you will give the compliment later, you are likely to forget. Even if the person is not around, you can text them. Who wouldn’t want to receive a compliment out of the blue and it makes someone else know that you are thinking about them. “I just wanted to let you know that it means a lot to me that you are always willing to help out with the housework. It really helps me out a lot and I appreciate it.” It can also be the case when you suddenly remember that you meant to compliment someone earlier and forgot or did not get the opportunity. “I forgot to tell you earlier, I appreciated you getting that report to me earlier. It was so helpful to get extra time to prepare.” Life moves fast, and it is easy to miss opportunities to compliment someone. Don’t forego the opportunity to brighten someone’s day by putting off a compliment when you are thinking about it.
  • Tailor Your Compliment: This one is more for those that you know pretty well. When you know someone well like a romantic partner, close friend, or family member, target your compliment to affirm something they take pride in. If you know they spend a lot of time picking out clothes, mention how much you admire their sense of style. If they are an avid reader, let them know how much you admire them for continuously learning about things. If they are always caring for the pets, let them know that you admire how good they are with animals. People appreciate when their passions are recognized and affirmed.
  • Mix It Up: If you notice that someone is always complimented on the same thing, find something different to compliment them about. For example, if a friend is always complimented about their hair, compliment their eyes or their sense of humor. People like to be noticed for more than one thing, and if compliments are always about the same attribute, they lose impact. A compliment on some other attribute may be a breath of fresh air and may trigger a different response.
  • Don’t Ask For Anything In Return: Your compliment, no matter how genuine, will lose all of its value if it is given with anything expected in return. A compliment given just before asking for a favor seems like an insincere attempt to butter someone up. A compliment given with the expectation of a compliment in return is not really a compliment either.
  • Check Your Delivery: How you deliver your compliment may totally change how your compliment is received. First, think about the person. If they are someone who does not like having attention drawn to them, maybe complimenting them in front of others will be more embarrassing than affirming. On the other hand, if it is a person who is always overlooked, making the compliment in front of others may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Think about your tone. If you are usually sarcastic, you may need to make an extra effort to convey the compliment sincerely, so it is not perceived as sarcasm. Where is your attention? If you are giving a compliment, your focus should be on the person you are delivering it to, not other people who may be nearby. The point isn’t for you to receive attention for giving the compliment, the focus should be making sure the person receives the compliment.

Compliments, done right, can bring a lot of joy to someone. They are easy to give and probably will make you feel good as well. Give them out generously and thoughtfully and make someone’s day!

A compliment is verbal sunshine.

Robert Orben

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