The Art of the Compliment
Everyone needs to know how to give and receive compliments.
By Hara Estroff Marano published March 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Compliments are one of the most extraordinary components of social life. If given right they create so much positive energy that they make things happen almost as if by magic. They ease the atmosphere around two people and kindly dispose people to each other. Of course, there is a way to give them. And, just as important, a way to receive them. And everyone needs to know how to do both.
Compliments derive from taking notice of praiseworthy situations and efforts. So they are a mark of awareness and consciousness. We need to cultivate awareness of the good developments that are all around us.
Once praiseworthy situations are noticed, the awareness needs to be spoken. In other words, the compliment needs to be put forth into the world in spoken form. We deliver praise. People benefit from being the objects of compliments, but we also benefit being givers of them. Recipients benefit from knowing that we notice and learning that we value them. So compliments are powerful in motivating continued efforts. People strive to do more of what brings praise from others.
Focusing on and noticing the good qualities in the world around us gives our moods a boost all by itself. Plus, it is a kind of cognitive training, a training of attention. In addition, compliments amplify positivity; they not only deliver positive effects to others, those effects bounce back on us, ramping up the positive atmosphere we breath.
Compliments are little gifts of love. They are not asked for or demanded. They tell a person they are worthy of notice. They are powerful gifts. But compliments work only if they are sincere reflections of what we think and if they are given freely and not coerced. Compliments backfire if they are not genuine. And faux flattery is usually highly transparent. A false compliment makes the speaker untrustworthy; it raises suspicions about motives. And that can undermine a whole relationship.
The art of the compliment is not only a powerful social skill; it is one of the most fundamental. You don't need to be an expert to do it well. You just need to be genuine. Compliments are in fact one of the finest tools for acquiring more social skills, because the returns are great and immediate. They escalate the atmosphere of positivity and become social lubricants, fostering the flow of conversation and advancing communication by enhancing receptivity.
Because compliments make the world a better place, everyone needs to learn how to compliment. For starters, they must be genuine. The more specific they are, the better. "The way you handled that question at the meeting was brilliant. You really refocused the discussion onto our plans."
Compliments work best when they are forthright and not incidental. So you need to clear a little space for a compliment and deliver the praise as a statement. Compliments on appearance are fabulous for making people feel good and help put people at ease. But they don't work in situations where appearance isn't an issue. Telling a colleague she looks fabulous is always good, except in a meeting about strategic planning or anything else.
If compliments are a gift from a donor, their reception is equally a gift—a return gift to the giver. How a compliment is received can invalidate both the giver and the observation that inspired it.
Sadly, too many women discount compliments. Perhaps you've been in this situation yourself. Someone says, "Wow, you look great today." And you say, "oh, but I feel so fat (ugly) today." Or you get complimented on an outfit and you say, "Oh, this old thing, I've had it for years." Or someone says, "Hey, you gave a really good presentation." And you say, "oh, I just slapped some stuff together in five minutes." Such answers instantly suck the positivity out of the air and deflate the donor. They make the giver feel stupid for noticing and commenting on something so unworthy of praise. They totally invalidate the person's judgment. At the very least, they create social awkwardness.
There is only one way to receive a compliment—graciously, with a smile. The art of receiving a compliment teaches us an important lesson about life. It tells us that how we feel is highly subjective, known only to us. And it isn't necessarily observable to the world. And often the world is better off without knowing how we personally feel. And so are we. Because the positive atmosphere created by a compliment, if we allow ourselves to inhale it, can be powerful enough to transform our feelings.