The power of compliments

Join in creating “the most positive day in the world."

Want to join something positive?  March 1st is World Compliment Day when people all over the world are encouraged to give compliments, and in turn enhance their own  environments. Hans Poortvliet, a recognition professional, created the first “National Compliment Day” in the Netherlands eight years ago – and it’s now it’s a global initiative.  But why should we give compliments? And what makes praising so powerful?

Why compliments are so important to us
Compliments address the basic human need for recognition.  Psychologist William James noted that the deepest principle in human nature is to be appreciated.  Poortvliet explains that “nothing stimulates more and increases productivity and commitment faster than sincere appreciation.”  Compliments are an exquisite element of our communal social life.  Done right, they create a positive energy which eases the atmosphere between people and helps them perform better.  

A study by Japanese scientists asked 48 subjects to learn and perform specific finger exercises on a keyboard as fast as possible.  The subjects were separated into three groups.  One group received individual compliments from an evaluator.  A second group watched another participant receive compliments, and the third evaluated their own performance on a graph.  When the participants returned to perform the exercise sequence a day later, those who had been complimented performed significantly better than either of the other two groups.  The researcher explained the result through the (prior) discovery that, when receiving a compliment, the same area of the brain is activated as when receiving money; it’s a powerful social reward.   

Compliments are a mark of awareness and refined consciousness.  There is, however, a catch.  To gain the benefits of them, we need to have some skill.

The fine art of complimenting:  A two-way process
Honest compliments validate our efforts, unlike flattery, which has other motives.  They break the ice, stimulate conversation, and motivate future success.  But sometimes our achievements do not receive positive acknowledgement from others, partly because some people are not fluent in the language of positive emotions.  And some of us blunt the best efforts of compliment givers through discomfort in accepting praise!  So how should we give and receive compliments?

Giving compliments is surprisingly easy
1. Be sincere.  There’s no controversy here.  A genuine, congruent expression of praise or appreciation is a potent tool for improving and maintaining relationship.  “Congruent” means that the verbal and non-verbal elements match up.  Saying the person’s name, making eye contact, smiling, and leaning in toward the person you are complimenting all highlight your verbal message.  So, too, does an unhurried delivery.  

2. Be specific.  While it’s nice to hear, “You did a good job on that project,” the person has a much better chance of hearing the praise – and repeating current success in future – if you say what was especially good.  So you might add in, “Your innovative design, overall organisation, and ability to sense market needs were particularly helpful”:  name whatever was specifically great.

3. Add in how the praiseworthy effort has positively affected you, the organisation, or something else.  Did you meet a deadline better for their effort?  Find a more creative solution?  Did the organisation unite better for an important cause?  Chances are, honing in on this will tap into core meaning and values, with profound significance for the recipient.

4. Try giving the compliment as a question.  It can be simple, like, “I love those earrings; where did you get them?” Or you could ask a follow-up question, such as:  “You really connected with the audience during that talk. Was it hard to come up with relevant material?”

5. Be moderate.  Over-the-top gushing can cause the recipient to feel self-conscious and make it harder to accept your compliment (how effusive you can be varies from culture to culture). 

Receiving compliments
Secretly, most of us long to be well-thought of, but sometimes our issues create difficulties in accepting praise.  The most common of these issues is low self-esteem; which prevents us from accepting compliments.  We may be a perfectionist, having unrealistically high expectations of ourselves and truly believing we don’t deserve the praise.  Many millions of people hate compliments because of Social Anxiety Disorder, a condition which causes people to fear being judged and therefore avoid situations where they will be the centre of attention.  So how should we receive a compliment?

1. Smile graciously, return eye contact, and say, “thank you.”  As with giving the compliment, a smile shows appreciation and sincerity (laughter, of course, communicates the opposite).

2. Add something relevant.  The person complimented on those earrings can add, “I got them at that shop by the waterfront; they have unique pieces there.”

3. Don’t automatically compliment in return.  It seems insincere and like you are just trying to be polite, or even approval-seeking.

4. Don’t deny, deflect, or ignore the remark.  For example, if someone were to say “You sang beautifully tonight,” and you respond with “it was really mediocre,” you could be perceived as discounting the compliment giver’s judgement, rather than simply being modest.  

For some people, giving and receiving compliments can take some practice, but positive feedback is crucial for validating our sense of ourselves.  So why not?  On March 1st, find three people to compliment – genuinely – and join in creating the most positive day in the world!

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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