Five Principles of Paying Compliments to People


What makes a good compliment? When should we speak and when should we keep our mouths shut? Here are five principles to consider.

“Hey, that’s a nice new haircut.”

“Your last blog post was ‘killer’! Keep it up!”

“She is such a generous friend. She brought over dinner last week when I was sick...I don’t know how she knew I was down and out!”

Everyone likes getting compliments. Most of the time, they feel really good, even when we don’t think we deserve them.

What makes a good compliment? When should we speak and when should we keep our mouths shut? Here are five principles to consider:

  1. Don’t tell the person directly—The highest compliment you’ll ever receive is one not intended for your ears. If you've observed something special about someone, tell the person's husband, wife or best friend; they will pass on your compliment without you being involved. It will mean much more coming from a “third party” whose only agenda is to build up the person you want to build up.
  1. Compliment character—Bragging about someone’s performance, looks, or even a person's skills will encourage that individual at a surface level. But if you think about the character of a person—if the behavior that’s impressed you emanates from a characteristic that you can identify, say something good about that. “If I were describing you to a stranger, I’d start by telling them about your integrity—that I would hand you my wallet and never think twice.” That resonates much more deeply than, “Boy, you really shot straight about those expense reports in the meeting with the boss.”
  1. Be intentional when you pay a complimentThink about what you’re going to say and why you’re going to say it. Am I trying to be liked? Or am I about encouraging (“giving courage to”) someone? You get what you "glorify," particularly with young people. If you want your daughter to wear tons of makeup and spend hours on her hair, constantly compliment her on how pretty she looks. Compliments are, in a sense, rewards, and what is rewarded is repeated. Think about what you want repeated, before you pay your compliments.
  1. Don’t dilute the value of your complimentsPaying too many compliments devalues each one. When someone is constantly gushing praise, it’s hard to take the words seriously. In fact, you might even question the very thing he or she is complimenting you about. When you think, “Oh, they say that to everyone,” it’s easy to discount the compliment and even think they are just saying something to make you feel better. Try not to compliment people on things that aren't their fault. Your words will ring hollow.
  1. Connect your compliment to something they didWhen you can validate your compliment with an action that the person did, it’s more meaningful. For example, praising someone for being generous means more to that person when your praise is tied to his or her recent and observable act of generosity.Sitting in your living room and telling your friends about your creative wife resonates more deeply once she’s just finished redecorating it. You’re connecting her effort with her gifts in plain view of the outcome.

Learning how to pay thoughtful compliments takes time. We have to stop and reflect on what’s been done...on what we've seen or heard. We have to think about the person and how we can love them through our words of praise. Then, we have to act. An unspoken compliment is useless and gone forever.

Question: How are you at dishing out praise? Do people roll their eyes because you do it so much? Do they burst into tears because they've waited so long to hear a compliment come out of your mouth?

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