How to Give Better Compliments

Our 12-year old made us dinner the other night. It was inspired by one of his favorite YouTubers and was surprisingly good. I didn’t tell him that, though. To say it was “surprisingly good” is a back-handed compliment–because the undertone suggests I didn’t expect it to be good (which, truth be told, I didn’t… but he doesn’t need to know that.) Instead I told him he did a great job and I’d like to have the dinner (especially the dessert) again. But I had to check myself before I said anything, because my first inclination to respond was grounded in the negative–I wanted to give the back-handed compliment. I had to consciously redirect.

How could I give a good, truthful compliment?

I don’t like what this scenario suggests about my mindset. It suggests I am focused on the negative and critical. I wonder why that is. Perhaps I’ve let myself become so self-critical that I feel a need to look for the faults in others, too. Perhaps I’m just a bit jaded and crotchety in my middle-agedness. Whatever it is, I’d like not to be such a critical curmudgeon. I doubt anyone else wants me to be that either. 

As a guy who is striving to open up deeper relationships with the people around him, I realize that there are actions I can undertake that make me a more suitable companion. I can do things that make my presence more attractive to the special people in my life. Being more encouraging is certainly one of those actions. And compliments are the couriers of encouragement.

Compliments reflect strength. They reflect an assuredness in self and a freedom in speaking one’s mind. Compliments are magnets–they draw attention to one’s self (which may be one reason I’m shy about them) and act as an invitation. When we compliment someone, we are suggesting we appreciate something about them. And don’t we all want to be with those who appreciate us?

I want to do that for my family and close relationships. But, as previously stated, I am not currently naturally bent towards handing out meaningful compliments. So I did some research. The following is my primer for effective complimenting…

First, avoid “I” statements. Make the compliment about the other person, not about yourself. A statement like “I really liked the dinner you made us” is fairly subjective. Turning that statement into something like “You made a really tasty dinner, I hope you’ll cook for us again!” turns a subjective statement centered on the self into a true acknowledgement of the other person. It’s more meaningful to hear.

Secondly, get specific. My son did a good job making dinner the other night. I could simply tell him he did a “good job”. OR, I could tell him “You prepared a really tasty meal. You must have put a lot of thought and preparation into that.” The second statement acknowledges the effort he made. He isn’t very likely to remember a “good job” statement. But he is likely to remember a specific acknowledgement. Being specific makes our compliments more poignant and memorable.

Thirdly, avoid appearance. We already place too much value on appearances. And, let’s face it, me complimenting a coworker on her appearance can get awkward real quick. Strive for giving compliments of character and action. Appearances are kind of low-hanging fruit, and because of that, compliments about appearance can feel a little insincere. It’s way more meaningful to receive a compliment about my nature than about my appearance. I would love to provide that boost to someone else. 

Fourthly, learn to accept a compliment. One reason many of us are uncomfortable giving compliments is that we are uncomfortable receiving compliments. Compliments leave us unsure of how to respond. So put this simple phrase in your back pocket: “Thanks. I appreciate hearing that.” It’s a brief statement of appreciative fact. When you get a compliment you appreciate hearing, simply acknowledge it. The compliment giver is not offering the compliment in anticipation of eliciting some kind of response from you. They are likely providing the compliment because they felt moved to express their own appreciation for you. So it’s OK to be brief and genuine in your response.

Now what? I got to turn and run with this information. Since I’m on a quest to deepen my important relationships, I’ve built offering compliments into my leveling up system. But I also want to take this a step further. So here are a couple more ideas for growing in compliments:

  • Compliment a co-worker regarding how their work impacts our organization.
  • Compliment someone on Facebook. An easy way is to offer an appreciative recollection of someone on their birthday (example, “Man, your quick wit always brought a smile to our faces in history class. Hope this day brings a smile to you.”). That’s certainly more meaningful than the deliberately-awkward gifs I normally post.
  • Offer a compliment to a business or organization. On the business level, most of the feedback received is negative. Offering a sense of appreciation for services provided will really brighten someone’s day.

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