“Idle words are characterless and die upon utterance. Evil words rankle for a while, make contentions, and then die. But the hopeful, kind, cheering word sinks into a man’s heart and goes on bearing fruit forever. How many beautiful written words—words in book and song and story—are still inspiring men and making the world fragrant with their beauty! It is just so with the words you write, not on paper, but on the hearts of men. I wish there were room to mention here the testimonies of great men to the power of some hopeful, encouraging word they had spoken to them in youth and in the days of struggle. But every autobiography records this thing. Booker T. Washington tells how the encouragement of General Armstrong saved the future for him. I know a young man who is to-day filling a large and useful place in the world, who was kept to his high purpose in a time of discouragement by just an encouraging word from a man he greatly admired. That man’s word will live and grow in the increasing influence of the younger man. This world is full of men bearing in their minds deathless words of inspiration heard in youth from lips now still forever. Speak hopeful words every chance you get. Always send your young friends from you bearing a word that they will take into the years and fulfill for you.” — The Enlargement of Life (1903) By Frederick Henry Lynch
As I detailed in this seminal post about the importance of hustling, when I started playing football in high school I was slow and fat and generally terrible. But I worked as hard as I could for three years and eventually became a starter my senior year. At the end of my last season, one of the coaches pulled me aside in the hallway, put his hands on my shoulders and said, “McKay, there are plenty of other guys on the team that have way more natural athletic ability than you. You’re not a naturally athletic guy, but what you lacked in talent, you made up for with hustle and heart.”
That conversation impacted the rest of my life. It crystallized something I had hoped was true into something I began to really believe about my character. Since then, when I’ve faced challenges where I don’t feel as up to the task as others, I can hear my coach telling me that I have heart, and it helps me to push on.
Such is the power of compliments.
Unfortunately, even though compliments are a powerful force for positive good for both the giver and receiver, most people are pretty stingy with them. Let’s change that and start lifting each other up more often with encouraging words. Here’s why you should offer more compliments, and how to do it.
Why We Should Compliment More
Compliments encourage others who are struggling. Studies have shown that when it comes to helping someone reach their goal, positive feedback is most effective for novices. Experts are primarily concerned about evaluating their rate of progress, and negative feedback helps motivate them to want to go further and faster. Beginners, on the other hand, are most concerned with simply evaluating their commitment (can I do this?) and they interpret compliments as signs that they’re on the right track and will be able to stick with it.
A compliment can truly be all that stands between someone being successful and giving up. Stand in that gap and offer an encouraging word.
Compliments help children learn new tasks. Given the point above, this makes sense; after all, kids are novices at everything. Researchers argue that positive feedback is also more effective than the negative variety in teaching kids new tasks and behaviors, because it’s simpler than negative feedback; the latter involves the more complex task of learning from mistakes.
For this reason, “Catch ‘em doing something good” is one of my parenting mottos.
Compliments strengthen (and soften) relationships. Compliments convey respect. Relationships are built on respect. Simple.
Compliments can also serve to melt the ice between you and an antagonist. As we’ll discuss below, offering a compliment requires a bit of humility, and it also tells the receiver that even if you don’t like anything else about them, you can at least admit to admiring that one quality. That tiny opening can often thaw the freeze into, if not bosom-buddy-hood, then at least a working relationship.
Compliments charm others and increase our circle of influence. People like surrounding themselves with those who make them feel good, and nothing makes a person feel better about themselves than a thoughtful compliment. If you want to make new friends or increase your influence among co-workers and colleagues, make an effort to “catch them doing something good” (it works for everybody!) and then complimenting them on it.
Compliments help you be less cynical. In the wise words of William George Jordan, “We pay too much tribute to a few human insects when we let their wrong-doing paralyze our faith in humanity. It is a lie of the cynics that says ‘all men are ungrateful,’ a companion lie to ‘all men have their price.’ We must trust humanity if we would get good from humanity. He who thinks all mankind is vile is a pessimist who mistakes his introspection for observation; he looks into his own heart and thinks he sees the world.”
For reasons we’ll discuss in just a moment, humans have a tendency to concentrate on the negative. When you start looking for reasons to offer compliments, you increase the sensitivity of your antennae for picking up on good stuff – the positive, admirable things that people do every day. Don’t look now stony heart, a tear was just squeezed from you.
Reasons You Don’t Compliment More Often
Our brains are designed to focus on the negative. The human mind is designed with a negativity bias — we pay more attention and give more weight to negative experiences as opposed to positive ones. There’s a perfectly good evolutionary reason for this. An increased sensitivity to negative experiences kept our caveman ancestors safe from life-threatening risks. “Okay, so sabertooth tigers don’t think it’s funny when you pull their tails.”
Unfortunately, the very bias that helps keep us safe from risks, often prevents us from noticing the good and praiseworthy things that folks around us do. We’ll notice and say something when our waiter messes up our order, but when he provides impeccable service, it hardly registers, and if it does, we rarely mention it to him.
The first step to becoming a better complimenter is to simply be aware of your negativity bias. Understand that your brain is always hunting for something to gripe about, so make a conscious effort to overcome that bias by searching for the good – it’s often right in front of your nose.
You’re self-absorbed. No matter how selfless we may think we are, all of us are self-centered to varying degrees. We’re typically more concerned about our own performance or behavior, and not the performance or behavior of others. Our natural egotism explains why we think everyone notices how nervous we’re feeling when giving a big speech. Because we’re paying so much attention to how we’re feeling, we assume others are too. They’re not – they’re as caught up in their own thoughts and behavior as you are in yours!
Our natural self-centeredness can cause us to not truly pay attention and listen to others – which makes us miss opportunities to offer a compliment. Don’t get so wrapped up in yourself that you overlook the good things others around you are doing.
You see everything as a competition. Complimenting is a way to show your respect or admiration for someone. For many men, offering a compliment seems like an admission that they’re inferior and the person receiving the compliment is better. These folks see everything in life as a competition and don’t want to give someone any more “points” with a compliment.
However, if someone happens to excel you in some aspect of life, withholding your compliment isn’t going to even the score. In fact, the other person probably doesn’t even know there is a score. Success isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s plenty of it to go around — so quit the petty scorekeeping.
In truth, it’s the superior man who is able to respect other men for their excellence, and who seeks to identify and articulate areas where he’d like to improve. Observing and taking notes on the things that others are doing that you want to do too, is an excellent way of facilitating this improvement. And offering the adroit man a compliment can lead to the very best way to improve – finding a mentor. “I really enjoyed your presentation today. How did you get so comfortable with public speaking?”
You’re shy. If saying a simple “hello” to someone gives you a shiver of anxiety, offering a compliment likely induces a full-on panic attack. Okay, maybe not a panic attack, but some awfully sweaty palms. If shyness is a problem for you, compliments are a low-risk, high-return way to overcome your social anxiety. Most people love to hear how awesome they are and will almost never respond with a cold shoulder to a simple and sincere compliment. It is also a great way to kick-off small talk, if that’s something that troubles you. “This table you made is amazing. How did you get into woodworking?”
You don’t want to appear like a brown-noser/kiss-ass/suck-up. Nobody wants to be a suck-up. But don’t withhold compliments because of your fear of being labeled as one. To avoid the brown-noser label, you simply need to follow a few guidelines when offering compliments to folks, especially your superiors. First, be sincere (more on that later). Second, be judicious with your compliments. Don’t go overboard with showering praise on your boss/teacher. Third, offer the compliments or praise when others aren’t around. If sociological studies are correct, your boss probably enjoys hearing your effusive praise and compliments; it’s your colleagues who likely disdain it – as they perceive it as an attempt to elevate your status and diminish theirs. Compliment your superiors in private.
You assume they already know. Another reason we sometimes hold back with the compliments is that we figure people already know what we think about them, or that they’ve probably been complimented on that quality before. Well, if they have, once more won’t hurt. But more likely than not, your compliment will be greeted with, “Really? No one’s ever told me that before.” Remember, most people are pretty stingy with the compliments, so yours have a high likelihood of coming as a most welcome and heartening surprise.
Also, even if they do know what you think of them, putting those thoughts into words is a very powerful thing. It makes something nebulous become concrete and real.
You don’t know what to say. If you avoid giving compliments because you simply don’t know what to say, then you’re in luck! We’re going to tell you exactly how to give an effective compliment in the next section. No more using that excuse!
How to Give a Compliment
Start paying attention. The first step of becoming a master complimenter is recognizing opportunities to offer praise. To overcome our negative and egocentric biases, we need to harness our inner Sherlock Holmes by observing more frequently and more keenly. Be fully present when interacting with others and you’ll easily find lots of things to compliment them on.
Compliment the small stuff. You don’t need to wait around for some big accomplishment to offer a compliment to somebody. If it’s something really obvious, they’ve probably been complimented on it plenty of times before. So offer your admiration for the small stuff. What may seem trivial to you might mean a lot to somebody else. Like somebody’s jacket? Let them know! Impressed with someone’s handwriting? Tell them.
While small things make excellent fodder for compliments, make sure they’re connected to a worthwhile trait or talent. Complimenting someone’s jacket makes them feel good, because it says they have good taste. Taking note of someone’s handwriting is really complimenting them on their discipline and practice. For this reason, “I like the way you eat peas,” or, “You pet your cat real nice,” will win you puzzled looks rather than smiles.
Be specific. The more specific you can get the better. Specificity conveys sincerity. When you’re specific with your compliment, it shows that you’re really paying attention to the person.
Moreover, if your goal is to encourage positive change in an individual, the more specific you get with your compliment, the more likely the recipient will be to continue the positive behavior. Specificity helps them identify what they’re doing right. For this reason, children who grew up with parents who gave them a lot of general praise, “You’re so smart!” or, “You’re so special!” tend to feel lost in adulthood, as they haven’t learned to hone in on their talents and abilities.
Be sincere. Compliments that are clearly insincere won’t win you any points; in fact, they’ll have the opposite effect. If a person knows you’re lying, that will erode their trust in you and de-value your future compliments.
You may compliment someone because you’re trying to win them over or sell them something, but if those are the only reasons you’re giving the compliment, the person will see right through you, and be repulsed rather than charmed. That might be part of your motivation, but you have to really, truly admire the thing you call out for praise for it to come off sincerely.
An emphasis on sincerity will also prevent you from offering compliments too often – another practice that makes your praise seem phony.
Finally, compliments that aren’t connected to true merit breed “learned helplessness” and passivity. When someone is rewarded and praised no matter what he does, he comes to see that positive attention is outside of his control and not contingent on good behavior or success. This saps his motivation to try and to challenge himself. This is especially important to keep in mind when you’re complimenting your kids.
Avoid the backhanded compliment. The backhanded compliment isn’t even a compliment, but rather an insult disguised as one. It can be a tool of the passive aggressive person to express disdain without completely owning up to it. We’ve all been subject to backhanded compliments one time or another.
- “Your painting is surprisingly good.”
- “You’re smarter than you look.”
- “I’m really impressed you’ve held a job for more than 6 months.”
- “You look pretty good considering your age.”
The best way to avoid backhanded compliments is to resist the urge to add any modifiers to the original compliment. If someone did a good job during a speech, just say, “Great job on that speech!” and nothing more. If the person is not deserving of the praise, then simply say nothing at all.
Explain how the person’s great qualities affect you. If you’re having trouble coming up with something to say when complimenting somebody, simply share how that person’s great qualities make a difference, however small, in your life – combine a compliment with appreciation. “Your smile really brightens up my day!” “Your attention to detail really makes my job a whole lot easier. Thanks!” And so on.
Vocalize your thoughts. I think part of the reason we’re often stingy with the compliments is not that we don’t think nice thoughts or notice things we admire in others, but that we don’t make the leap to putting those thoughts into words. We let the thought slip away unspoken. This often happens in long-term relationships – you get so comfortable you stop vocalizing your affections. If your lady gets all gussied up for a night out, let her know how nice she looks, instead of making her ask, “Well, how do I look?”
Compliment someone in front of others. A public compliment has extra weight because it shows the recipient that you’re proud to be associated with them and you’re not afraid to reveal your admiration to others.
Relay “second-hand compliments.” One of my favorite types of compliments to receive are what I call “second-hand compliments.” These are compliments that happen outside of the praised person’s earshot, but that you relay back to them later. For example, “Hey James, I was talking to Andy the other day about your new partnership and he went on and on about how he’s never enjoyed working with someone as much as he does with you, and how much he appreciates the new ideas you’re bringing to the project.”
Non-present compliments are also those you yourself offer about someone else when they’re not around. For example, I was recently talking to my brother about running and working on the blog and I mentioned how I really admire Kate’s tenacity and grit to finish an article on a tight deadline, even if it means staying up all night to do it. When I got home, I told her about that conversation, and she said it really meant a lot.
Second-hand compliments are extra special because they tell the receiver that you think so highly of their worthy quality that you were even talking to other people about it.
Don’t delay! If you notice something to compliment someone about, do it as soon as you can. If you wait too long, you’ll likely forget. Happens to me all the time. For example, last Sunday at church, a young man gave a really impressive talk. He was articulate, engaging, and insightful. I thought to myself, “I need to tell that kid I enjoyed his talk,” but when the meeting was over, I got busy conversing with someone else, and I didn’t get a chance to offer my compliment.
The Compliment Challenge
For the next week, challenge yourself to compliment five different people every day:
- A loved one or friend. Compliments are an easy way to strengthen the bonds between you and your loved ones.
- A co-worker. Be a morale booster at your office by seeking opportunities to compliment your fellow employees.
- A business you frequent. Most businesses just hear complaints all day. Very few people take the time to compliment them on good service or creating a quality product.
- A young person. Young people need nurturing and one of the best ways to do that is through a thoughtful compliment from an older person. You have no idea how much it will mean to that kid.
- A stranger. Make a random stranger’s day by offering a sincere compliment. It doesn’t have to be anything big. A simple, “I like your hat,” will do.
Of course, the other half of compliments is knowing how to receive them. We’ll talk about that sometime too.
Until then, work on becoming a man who’s got a warm heart and never hesitates to offer an encouraging word to everyone he meets.
Last updated: March 16, 2016