Delivering genuine, meaningful compliments is a skill fundamental to friendship, family, romantic relationships, and even your work life. The majority of people are spending far too much time worrying about what others think, and far too little time telling others what they think. If we all balanced this out a little, then maybe there'd be a bit less anxiety and confusion in the world.
Last year, an old friend of mine came to visit me in Germany, and as we were sitting having dinner I turned to him and said: "I just want you to know that I am always impressed with how consistently you see your friends. You always make a real effort to see people and follow them up, and it is something I've always admired". I will never forget the look on his face as he thanked me and told me how much it meant to him to hear someone say that. After so many years of meticulously scheduling and catching up with his plethora of acquaintances, nobody had ever just stopped to tell him that they noticed the effort.
Insofar as personalities go, I'm a little on the paranoid side. The better my life seems to progress, the more sure I am that everything is about to go terribly wrong. I've learned to live with this darker personality quirk of mine, but in some ways it has given me good habits. One of those is to always end interactions as positively as possible. I am haunted by the idea of someone I'm close to dying without them knowing how much I love them, and I therefore make an effort to keep that love front and centre in every interaction I have.
Unfortunately, most of us are in the unfortunate habit of not complimenting people we admire in our everyday life. In this article, I'll run through why we tend not to give compliments, when we should give compliments, how to give a compliment, and lastly what not to do.
Why didn't I tell him I loved him?
The majority of people are not spending their social interactions complimenting the people they admire. Let's cover the reasons I've noticed people don't give compliments, and why you shouldn't pay them too much mind.
"They already know what I think/feel"
In a way, this is the easiest to talk about because it is absolutely not true. Every single type of relationship and the communication therein has to revolve around one simple concept: We cannot read minds.
Not only do you not know what someone else is thinking, but they can't know what you're thinking either. Human beings are also pretty terrible sometimes at interpreting others' actions. Have you ever stared too long at a text message which says "OK." and wondered what on Earth it means? Have you ever sent an "OK." and assumed the other person 'got the message'? Do you see how much conflict and confusion this one, simple example can cause?
Never, ever assume that other people already know what you think about them.
"It would be awkward to say"
My husband is the best complimenter I've ever met. Before meeting him, I probably would have agreed with the above statement. As time went on though, I saw how people really responded to genuine compliments: smiles, thanks, a feeling of being 'seen'. People leave interactions with my husband feeling confident, secure, and reassured that the effort they go to is paying off.
I have to admit: compliments do not come as naturally to me. Despite that, as with any skill I have practised and continue to improve, not once has someone seemed confused or freaked out by me noticing their efforts. This is just one of those things you will have to trust me on: even if something feels awkward for you, that doesn't mean the other person feels the same way. Practice is something which helps here: both in terms of 'technique' (which we'll cover later) and in terms of feeling comfortable with your new skill!
"I don't want them to take it the wrong way"
The fear that someone will misinterpret your compliment as a romantic advance is valid, as there is always scope for people to misinterpret any form of friendliness in this way. That said, if you stick to my guidelines below, you should find that this isn't a major problem. I would add that if you're ever unsure if someone will misinterpret your compliment, then avoiding physical touch and adding "Good job" or "Good work" is a great way of ensuring your words aren't misconstrued. I don't know about you but I've never said "Good work" while trying to flirt with someone!
What do I even say?
I'd like to answer this question with a thought experiment. Think of someone you've known for a significant amount of time, let's say over a year or two. For the sake of this example, let's call her Sally. Your new friend, Bob, is meeting you for coffee one day and he says: "Hey I met someone called Sally the other day, I think you know her? Ugh I just can't stand her. Why are you two even friends?".
How would you answer Bob?
The above will tell you everything you need to know about what kind of compliments you should be giving Sally. Does she make you laugh? Is it that she always knows how to cheer you up? Or is she always insightful about issues you used to think were simplistic? Maybe it's because she is great at networking, or because she saved your ass in that meeting where you almost quit in frustration. Chances are, you know what you like about your friends and family: So tell them!
When do I deliver compliments?
I'm going to refer back to my husband again on this one. He is an amazing listener and will extrapolate from peoples' stories why they feel a certain way, based on their character traits.
The most meaningful time to deliver a compliment is when it's relevant to the recipient's life or story.
Let's say Sally is talking to us about a frustrating situation at work where she felt nobody was listening to her, this could be a good time to tell her about that trait we mentioned earlier, and say: "That sounds really frustrating, especially since you always seem to have something insightful to share. They really missed out on your perspective. I don't know if I've ever told you, but I really value the way you make me think differently about issues I used to think were simplistic."
BOOM! You just delivered Sally a compliment that is not only true, but is also relevant to her current situation and is highly likely to make her feel better about a crap day at work.
If in doubt, blurt it out.
Of course, situations like this don't always come up. If there's someone in your life whose presence you really value, it might be worth just spitting it out. In this day and age, with so many different forms of communication around, you really don't have any excuse. Furthermore, if you're more comfortable with the written word, then this can be a good way to practice.
The upside: you can carefully craft exactly how you deliver your compliment, and you can do it any time.
The downside: you miss their reaction, and they might curate their reaction to be something underwhelming.
For example, you might just decide to message Sally out of the blue and say: "You know I was just thinking about that time John broke up with me, and you really cheered me up. I'm not sure if I ever thanked you for that: you always know how to bring a smile to my face, and I really think that's amazing."
Now Sally is not expecting this. She probably appreciates it, but it won't have the same impact as our earlier example. Furthermore, because these are (unfortunately) rare messages to receive, she might respond with something like "Thanks :)". Don't be surprised if people do this: they are also thinking about how they come across, and they don't necessarily want to seem overly appreciative of attention.
How do I give a compliment?
If the above examples all seem relatively straightforward to you, then you might want to just skip this part. However, I know a lot of people need these things really, truly broken down into actionable steps: so let's do that! If you follow these steps, you should be able to deliver a meaningful compliment that doesn't come off as imposing or creepy.
1. Use a 'soft open'
For example, the following phrases:
- "I just thought I should say..."
- "I'm not sure if I've ever told you, but..."
- "Has anyone ever told you that..."
- "You know, you just reminded me to tell you that..."
These phrases make the compliment seem more incidental rather than planned to achieve some sort of manipulative end. Real compliments exist to express real feelings of gratitude and appreciation towards each other, not to achieve an end. In other words, a soft open helps take the pressure off.
2. Relay a true, positive impression you have of the person
This is the 'compliment body', so to speak. The important thing here is to focus on something which is absolutely true, and absolutely positive.
If you're in a work environment and/or trying to avoid romantic or sexual connotations, steer clear of physical traits. Focus on things the person does, says, or achieves.
Another thing to avoid is bringing others down to achieve the compliment: "You are such a positive force to be around" is much more powerful than "You're so much nicer than Clare". Don't bring any negative feelings into it or drag anyone else down: keep it a positive interaction!
A note on lying: Sometimes, you want to cheer someone up and so you try to fabricate a compliment in the moment. Don't do it. It will come back to bite you. Sincerity is the core of a good compliment.
3. Relate the compliment to an event or experience you had with that person (Optional)
If there is an example of a situation in which the above trait can be seen in action, talk about it. People always like to know that their efforts have been noticed.
As with the Sally example above, you can relate the compliment either to things which have happened in the past, or things which are happening right now.
4. End with a 'soft close'
For example, the following phrases:
- "Anyway, I just thought you should know."
- "I thought it was important to let you know that."
As I mentioned earlier, if you're in a work environment, giving some sort of review, or are looking to avoid any misunderstandings, a quick "Good job" or "Keep it up" is a great way to wrap up the chat.
Homework for the next seven days
The best way to improve any skill is to practice! Here are some ways you can put this into action. Try to use the above format, and think about how the core of what you say might change depending on who you're talking to.
Not all of the below will be relevant to you but pick out the ones which are and put them into practice in the following week:
- Level 0: Compliment an inanimate object
- Level 1: Compliment a pet or child
- Level 2: Compliment me in the comments section
- Level 3: Compliment a casual friend
- Level 4: Compliment a workmate
- Level 5: Compliment a parent, close family member or long-term friend
- Level 6: Compliment a romantic interest or partner