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Sherri Richards, Published April 03 2013

The way we give – and receive – compliments affects our relationships

FARGO - Barb Chromy remembers an especially nice compliment she once received.

“You give the best compliments,” someone once told her.

A compliment is a pleasant observation of something we like about another person, says Chromy, clinical supervisor and licensed professional counselor with the Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

Compliments foster trust and relationships, building positive feelings between people, she says. They can be a conversation-starter, or a way of boosting someone’s spirits.

In many ways, a compliment is a verbal gift. A dictionary definition of a compliment is a “token of esteem.”

Like tangible gift-giving, there’s an art to make sure the compliment is suited to its recipient.

GENUINE AND SPECIFIC

Compliments should be genuine and specific, Chromy says.

“Sometimes the vague compliment, ‘Boy, you look good today,’ almost gives the person the question, ‘Did I not look good before?’ It leaves that question open,” she says.

Going into detail demonstrates a compliment’s genuineness, Chromy says. So instead of saying just “You look good,” the compliment-giver may say “You look nice in that color. It really flatters your skin and makes your eyes pop.”

However, the best compliments focus on the person’s character or quality of being, Chromy says, instead of something temporary like looks or status.

“When we build our self-esteem on things that are transitory, the idea is we could lose our self-esteem,” she says.

Tamara Anderson, team performance strategist for Dale Carnegie Business Group of North Dakota, compares effective compliment-giving to the rings of a bull’s-eye. The outer rings are recognizing things, the middle rings would be accomplishments, but you hit the target when you compliment personality traits.

“That’s where you really have the most impact,” Anderson says.

Giving honest and sincere appreciation is Carnegie’s second principle in the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Anderson says this appreciation needs to be specific to the person and backed up with evidence.

Sincere compliments go beyond words, Anderson notes. Body language, tone of voice and eye contact all contribute to the effectiveness of the compliment.

Compliments are best done in the moment. An employer shouldn’t wait until an annual performance review to deliver the praise, she says.

In a workplace, well-delivered compliments can have a tremendous impact on productivity and efficiency of a team as well as an individual’s engagement and commitment to the team, Anderson says.

WHEN COMPLIMENTS GO BAD

Just as a gift can sometimes miss the mark, so can a compliment.

A common, well-meaning compliment is the phrase “good job.”

“The intention is good, but because it’s not backed by evidence or anything specific, it can feel hollow,” Anderson says.

Sometimes compliments can be construed as offensive. That’s why the wording of a compliment is important, especially in a workplace. For example, compliments about a person’s looks should be filtered, Chromy says.

And then there are backhanded compliments, the kind that are as insulting as they are flattering.

In those cases, the giver needs to be cognizant of her motivation. Sometimes a person will use a compliment as an opening to express their frustration or annoyance, Chromy says.

“We look at that as being passive-aggressive communication. It’s not really clear, is that a compliment or a criticism,” she says.

ON THE OTHER END

There’s also an art to receiving a compliment, especially in our humble Midwest culture where it can be difficult for people to accept praise.

People with low self-esteem also tend not to receive compliments well, says Chromy, who leads a six-week class on self-esteem for adults. The next session begins April 22.

Often we’ll deflect the compliment, by demurring or disagreeing, she says.

“When we negate a compliment, we’re disagreeing with that person’s judgment,” Chromy says.

Sometimes, we’ll feel like we have to “rebound” the compliment, saying something about the other person in return.

This sort of rebound compliment wouldn’t feel genuine, Chromy says.

Chromy says the best way to accept a compliment is simply to say “Thank you, I appreciate that. That means a lot to me.”

Anderson says it’s important to be aware of body language when receiving a compliment, for example not rolling our eyes and keeping an open stance.

A compliment received is an opportunity to recognize something new within ourselves, Anderson says.

“The best thing to do is just to say ‘thank you’ and take it in,” Anderson says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556.