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Perfecting the Art of the Compliment

Find tips for properly giving and receiving compliments.

Perfecting the Art of the Compliment

A compliment is a two-way gift. It benefits both the giver and the receiver. Too often, people deprive themselves of the pleasure of giving a compliment when they hesitate and let the moment slip by. Or perhaps the other person is so consistently well-groomed that we don't bother to say, "You look great today." Or someone is so consistently efficient that we fail to say, "Good job."

Compliments are always socially proper, if sincerely extended and kept appropriate to the context. If someone always looks great, tell him or her. If someone is always efficient, acknowledge that. Compliments can break the ice with a stranger, defuse stress, lift spirits, or tighten a bond. The right words at the right time can motivate, comfort, reward, validate, and inspire.

Compliments are not the same as flattery. Flattery is insincere and excessive. Superfluous compliments are annoying and make others feel as though the giver is angling for something—as if the giver "expected a receipt," lamented one writer. What makes a good compliment? These are the basics:

  • Be sincere. Complimenting someone just because you think it's a good idea is a bad idea. A phony compliment is easy to spot and instantly destroys the credibility of the speaker. If the luncheon speaker was a total flop, don't compliment the speech. Talk about the effort the speaker made to attend the function and the person's past achievements, if any.
  • Be specific. "That was a marvelous casserole" is better than "You're a terrific cook."
  • Be unqualified. Don't make the mistake of damning with faint praise: "That was a good report, considering …" or "This casserole is okay."
  • Don't compare. You can diminish the compliment by comparing the accomplishment to some other achievement—unless you are comparing it to something heroic, and then the compliment sounds insincere.

When receiving a compliment, just smile and say thank you. Never try to shrug off a compliment or disagree with the person who is trying to compliment you. If someone compliments you on your dress and you say, "Oh, this old thing?" you're actually saying that the other person's judgment is poor or that she doesn't know what's fashionable.

If someone compliments you on doing a good job at the office, don't say, "It was nothing," or "It should have been more complete (or finished earlier)." This response is insulting to the other person, implying that his standards are not very high. "Thanks, I worked really hard on it" is much better.

Here's another important tip: Never unilaterally upscale a compliment by infusing it with even more praise and enthusiasm than the giver meant to give. For example:

    "The sales managers liked your presentation."

    "Liked it? They loved it. I knocked their socks off."

Finally, if other people deserve a share of the credit, don't fail to mention them when you acknowledge the compliment.

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