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The Art of Complimenting and Criticizing

Compliment—and Critique—Your Way to Better Relationships

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Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell are "Nice but Superficial," and "Honest but Rude," Respectively

My friend Paula is the gregarious and friendly type. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to smile at strangers or to even start a conversation with a homeless person. It’s in her nature to look for positive things in others and to compliment them. The problem with Paula, however, is that she isn’t very good at critiquing others. She freezes up when she has to give negative feedback to others. So, even if she actually doesn’t like someone, she wouldn’t be able to bring herself to avoid his or her company. In fact, she will continue to say positive things to people she doesn’t like, even if she doesn’t really mean it. As a result, Paula has gained the reputation of being friendly, but perhaps a little inauthentic or superficial. People like to hang out with her, but they find it difficult to know the “real Paula.”

My friend Simon, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. He takes pride in being “honest,” but is often perceived as rude or blunt. He rarely notices or says positive things about others; rather, his nature is to hone into others’ faults, and he is in fact very good at providing critical but authentic feedback. Many people think that Simon’s a misanthrope, but that is not the case. He does like many people, but you wouldn’t know that till you got to know him really well. When he does like someone, he expresses his liking for them in a veiled fashion—usually as minor insults (“you are finally looking good today!”) than as compliments (“you are looking good as always”).

Who—Paula or Simon—is more likely to form deep and meaningful friendships? Most people would say, “Paula,” but that’s not necessarily the case. To understand why, consider what we know from findings in psychology.

As a number of findings show, those who are good at complimenting others gain many advantages. Most obviously, when you become good at complimenting others, you enhance the chances of being liked by them, which means that you get to enjoy all of the advantages of being liked. For example, if you are liked, you will be forgiven for committing a mistake more easily and quickly, and you are also more likely to be chosen as the recipient of others' favors.

More importantly, by becoming good at complimenting others, you get to enhance both your, and the others’, well-being. Any honest person would have to admit that they would prefer to receive compliments more often than they would like to receive criticisms. This is because two of our most important needs—the need to feel important and the need to feel loved—are fulfilled when we receive compliments and are frustrated when we receive criticisms.

What is less well-known is that those who compliment others enhance their own well-being as well. There are many reasons why complimenting others enhances your own well being. Perhaps the most important reason is that, when you compliment others, you view yourself as a generous and big-hearted person. So, you increase your own self-esteem because you perceive yourself as a big hearted and generous person. In contrast, when you criticize others, you perceive yourself as a selfish and insecure person, thereby lowering your self-esteem.

This causal link—between criticizing others and lower self-esteem—may not be obvious. This is because, as findings on downward comparisons show, criticizing others can temporarily boost your self-esteem and make you feel good. But over time, if you start depending on this strategy to boost your self-esteem, it starts backfiring for two reasons. First, you invite reciprocal negativity from others. That is, if you routinely criticize others, you will make them feel negative, and this, in turn, will make them criticize you. Of course, you can attempt to avoid such reciprocal negativity by criticizing others behind their back, but word gets around. And even if it doesn’t, by being the type of person who routinely criticizes others, you invite the company of people who are like you—critical and unforgiving—and turn away those who are generous and positive.

In short, you stand to gain many advantages—and avoid many disadvantages—by becoming better at the art of complimenting others. Of course, all of these advantages are more likely to accrue if your compliments are authentic and not fake. In particular, it is unlikely that you will view yourself as a generous and big-hearted person if you compliment others only for the sake of receiving favors from them; indeed, it is even possible that you view yourself even more negatively in such situations because you realize, at some level, that your intentions weren’t noble.

Given all this, two important questions arise: 1) How does one become better at the art of complimenting? and 2) When—and how—does one provide negative or critical feedback to others?

Becoming better at complimenting others depends on two factors: the motivation to learn this skill and the ability to focus on other people and their needs and desires, rather than on oneself. Motivation will not be an issue for those who recognize the advantages that accrue to everyone from becoming better at complimenting others. Gaining the ability to focus on others versus oneself, however, takes practice. Few people are naturally other-focused; most of us are generally self-focused.

A good—perhaps the best—way of becoming other-focused is to force yourself to get into the habit of finding something to compliment about whoever is around you. For example, although you may not have liked either the content or the style of a presentation, you can still find something about the presentation that you genuinely liked. Perhaps you liked how the presenter answered questions. Or perhaps there were a couple of good jokes in the presentation. Or perhaps the presenter was well dressed. It matters less whether these aspects of the presentation are “important” or “central” to the presentation; what matters more is that you are genuine in your praise.

Making it a habit to scan your “emotional terrain” to find something genuinely praiseworthy about others goes a long way in making you better at the art of complimenting. Initially, you may not be very quick at identifying something praiseworthy; indeed, if you are habituated to criticizing others, the first things that come to your mind about others may be negative ones.

There are two important roadblocks to becoming good at finding something praiseworthy in others. First, people tend to assume that, if someone evokes a negative feeling in them-—and most of us decide we like or dislike people within the first few seconds of meeting them-—, then this person cannot have any redeeming features. This is known as the “halo effect”: we tend to hold simplistic and consistent views of others and this makes us arrive at undifferentiated judgments of them. The truth, of course, is that we are all a combination of several negative and several positive features. Second, many people have a great desire to come across as “honest” and “straightforward,” and too many of us make the mistake of assuming that the only way of conveying our honesty and straightforwardness is by being bluntly critical.

So, an important milestone in becoming better at complimenting others is not just to recognize these roadblocks, but also be motivated to overcome them. Those who do overcome them will discover that complimenting others becomes just as natural and spontaneous as criticizing them used to be. Indeed, there comes a stage when complimenting others becomes “unconditional”—that is, one no longer compliments for the sake of receiving reciprocal favors.

This is a very important stage because, as those who reach this stage will discover, the interactions one has with others become far more interesting and meaningful after this stage. There is a good reason why. When you offer genuine praise to others, you don’t just make them feel good, but you also gain their trust. Everyone knows, or eventually gets to know, what they are genuinely good at. Thus, when you offer authentic praise, the others recognize this authenticity, which enhances their trust in you. This, in turn, makes them reveal more of themselves, including their insecurities, to you. In other words, by mastering the art of complimenting, you trigger in others the tendency to expose their real—as opposed to their “public relations”—self to you, which promotes reciprocity from your end, leading to authentic, deep and far more interesting, conversations.

This brings us to the second question: how does one become better at the art of criticizing or critiquing others?

As you may have noticed, providing negative feedback is much more difficult than is providing compliments. Usually, providing negative feedback does not result in positive outcomes either for oneself or for others; indeed, almost always, providing others with negative feedback—even if it is done with good intentions—generates “lose-lose” situations. But there are people who are particularly good at providing negative feedback. Although receiving negative feedback from these people can hurt, there is something about the way in which they provide the feedback that makes us focus less on the emotional negativity and more on using the feedback constructively to become better at something.

There are three important features in people who are good at providing negative feedback. First, they are genuinely un-self-centered. In other words, there is no hidden-agenda for providing negative feedback. The receiver of feedback feels confident that the feedback is being given to them with the sole purpose of improving their life, and not to take revenge on them. A tell-tale sign of genuinely un-self-centered feedback is that the feedback provider isn’t angry or anxious when giving the feedback. On a side note, if you notice that you are getting tight and tense when providing negative feedback, it’s a sign that you may be self-centered.

People who are good at providing negative feedback are also high in self-esteem and self-worth. This is important because, at times, the receiver of constructive criticism may lash back at the feedback-giver and the person giving the negative feedback needs to have the mental and emotional strength to not turn vengeful.

Finally, people good at providing negative feedback are socially intelligent. So, they pick and choose the moment in which they want to share criticism. Unless forced to, they don’t provide negative feedback in a pre-determined fashion, but rather, wait for the right opportunity. There is a good reason why. People are rarely in the mood to receive and digest negative feedback in a non-defensive fashion. Our natural tendency is to be defensive; that is, to find arguments for why the feedback does not have merit. So, those who are good at providing negative feedback do so only when they are confident that the receiver is mentally capable of handling it. As some of my own findings show, people are better at receiving negative feedback when they are in a good mood. Those who are good at the art of criticizing know this instinctively, and wait for moments in which the recipient is feeling good before providing them with the negative feedback. They recognize the importance of making sure that the receiver is capable of receiving negative feedback at every moment in the conversation. As such, good criticizers don’t follow a pre-set script when giving negative feedback. It is important to know when to throw in a compliment as an “emotional buffer” that helps the receiver absorb the negative feedback. A feedback-provider’s high level of social intelligence is also reflected in the language that they use. They realize that certain words and terms (e.g., the word, “you”) are incendiary and so, they are adept at avoiding them.

Going back to the topic with which I started, I wonder if Americans are better than Europeans at generating the initial emotional positivity, but then they squander this opportunity to develop deep and meaningful relationships by being perceived as inauthentic. Europeans, in contrast, appear to suffer from the opposite problem. I wonder if they are too wedded to the idea of being honest and direct and, as such, don’t work as hard as Americans do in looking for positive things in others. So, they end up squandering opportunities to develop and nurture relationships that do not start promisingly, but may in fact have turned out to be very good later on.

Regardless of the truth in these stereotypes, I am happy that my Europeans felt comfortable enough in my company to voice their true feelings about Americans.

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