The Art of Complimenting

We humans need to eat. No mystery there. Yet this knowledge alone is not enough to transform a person. Sure, the sheer act of ingesting food will keep you alive. But is the goal simply to survive? If so, a steady intake of cake and soda will do the trick.

Adopting a healthy diet is an improvement, but this too can quickly degrade into routine or even asceticism.

Ah, but then there are those who choose to approach the matter on an entirely different plain – the chefs, connoisseurs and epicureans among us. Not content with being mere consumers, they become lovers of the art of food. The nuance of it. The experience. The joy.

With any pursuit in life, there is doing a thing – and then there is doing it well. There is activity – and then there is artistry.

This holds true where compliments are concerned. There is little debate as to the importance of having “an attitude of gratitude,” particularly as a leader. Much has been said by way of encouraging frequent expressions of sincere thanks, all backed by impressive research. In this post, however, I want to expand upon the foundation shared by other insightful contributors, even right here within the Switch & Shift community (e.g., Matthew Gordon: “The Power of a Grateful Leader”). My aim in this post is to venture beyond the whys and wherefores, and to suggest some practical steps toward becoming a connoisseur of the compliment.

With any pursuit in life, there is doing a thing – and then there is doing it well. There is activity – and then there is artistry.

Art of true value must start with the right foundation. Where compliments are concerned, the medium with which we must always start is sincerity. Even the most articulate compliment etched from a sense of obligation, routine or self-aggrandizement will be about as effective as having fashioned the David from dryer lint. As Matthew Gordon pointed out, “Gratitude that isn’t genuine is worse than no gratitude at all.”

As with any art form, there is a refining process – a molding, shaping and chiseling that transforms a block of unadorned marble into a masterpiece. Once the proper medium of sincere motive is in place, we can begin to build upon it. With this in mind, let’s approach the sculpting of a compliment in four distinct stages (and please do consider these as a mindset and not a formula).

  • You: First and foremost, a compliment is personal. I would go so far as to suggest that a “group compliment,” however beneficial and positive, really is not a compliment at all. Try to recategorize group praise as a form of team builder or morale booster. Redefine a compliment as solely that praise to which you can attach a specific name.

Even the most articulate compliment etched from a sense of obligation, routine or self-aggrandizement will be about as effective as having fashioned the David from dryer lint.

Thinking in terms of “you” also means that a compliment should not be phrased as “we.” Never include yourself in the compliment (e.g., “This project would never have gotten done in time without your hard work and insight, Sandra,” rather than “We really pulled this off under the gun, didn’t we!”).

  • You are: Even when compliments are given, they often wind up focusing on a task or role (“You do / did …”) rather than on the person (“You are…”). Making this distinction requires an increased awareness and intentionality, but can greatly magnify the effectiveness of a compliment.

Consider this compliment: “Jim, your company newsletter this month was stellar. Great job!”

Here, I may be as sincere as can be, and I did focus on Jim rather than on a group. However, do you see that Jim’s task or role (creating the newsletter) was praised rather than Jim himself? Having received this compliment, Jim may feel good about the newsletter and even be motivated to continue putting out quality newsletters moving forward.

However, what if I had said this: “Hey, Jim, your enthusiasm really comes across loud and clear in this month’s newsletter. It’s great to have such an excellent communicator on the team.”

Double whammy! Jim feels good about this month’s newsletter, but he also feels affirmed for who he is as a person. With compliments like this, Jim may very well begin to notice and seek out opportunities beyond the newsletter where he can apply his enthusiasm and communication skills more broadly.

  • You are important: Now that you are focusing on the individual and on personal qualities rather than simply a role or task, you can further refine your compliments by pointing out the effect your “complimentee” is having on others. “I appreciate you” is elevated to another level entirely when you add some form of “because” to the mix.

Here’s another example: “Jen, I’ve been meaning to tell you – your thoughtfulness is really evident in the way you write reports. I don’t know how you do it, but you somehow manage to include every detail any of us might need to know. You really make everyone’s job a lot easier and cut down on stress around here.”

  • You are important to me: You may have noticed that, up until now, though my compliments have markedly improved – I’ve managed to leave my own feelings out of them entirely. However, the most potent compliments are those where I am willing to be vulnerable and express the effect someone is having on me personally, not just on others. For this reason, some also find this element the most difficult to include.

To illustrate: “Wow, Kevin, I’ve noticed that you never miss work and are always here ten minutes early. This really sets the bar of excellence for everyone.”

I’ve included all previous elements, but have not yet shared the effect Kevin’s work ethic has on me personally.

Let’s fine tune that compliment: “Kevin, I really admire that you never miss work and are always here ten minutes early. It sets the bar of excellence for everyone, and it encourages me personally to know I can count on you.

Any sincere praise will have a positive effect (e.g., “You’re looking really sharp today, Bruce”); so give it liberally. Don’t hold back, fretting over whether you’re “doing it right.” Remember, a motive of sincerity trumps all. But with intention and practice, you can hone the art of complimenting in ways that may change the course of a project, a team, a company – or a life.


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Copyright: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

Erik Tyler has been a personal mentor and family advocate with more than 500 teens and young adults over the last 25 years. During this time, he has also been an educator, educational advocate, learning and language specialist, graphic designer, musician and living statue. He is the author of the newly-launched book The Best Advice So Far, which offers practical application of collective wisdom in the context of poignant (and often hilarious) stories from his experience. Erik’s central theme as a mentor, speaker and author is consistent: “You always have a choice.”

  • Ryan

    Interestingly this makes more sense written out in front of me. I will never compliment someone the same way again!

  • Thanks for being thoughtful and sharing your time to leave a comment, Ryan. It does help me as a thinker, communicator and author to know how things connect with others. It’s all about connection! If you are not a Ryan I already know, I’d love to change that. Feel free to connect via Twitter, FB or even email:

    And if you are interested in the new book — “The Best Advice So Far” — you can check it out here:

  • Rod Thorell

    Erik, thanks for the effort to put this piece together, Your ability to put the other person first really shines through in your writing and is a personal challenge area for growth!

  • Pingback: you can’t make me | The Best Advice So Far()

  • Chad Littlefield

    Such a great article. There is something deeply wise about complimenting WHO someone is, not just what they do.

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  • Carolin

    Erik, that was a very good and thoughtful article. I have always tried to leave someone with a personal character compliment vs. complimenting something they are “doing”. I am trying to do that with my grandchildren as well, even though they are very young. It is something there is not enough of…it is part of a person’s character building and confirming those motivations that are pure. Carolin

  • I’d go a step further…we can occasionally get into a habit of criticizing people silently. Stop the running inner monologue that runs people down, it’s simply negative energy you don’t need. No one benefits.

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