Womanly Skill: How to Pay a Compliment

When I was in high school I lost ten pounds.  (I didn’t need to lose them.)  I wasn’t noteworthy among my peers; we were all obsessed with how we looked and what we ate.  And we were all hyper-critical of ourselves–and others.

I viewed other people with a critical eye.  But that’s no way to live, as I (thankfully) came to see.  I didn’t realize the harm I was doing at the time–to myself, and to them.

It’s much more pleasant to approach life looking for the good in others.  Compliments are an economic oddity–they cost the giver nothing, but the right compliment is enormously valuable to the recipient.

Become the kind of person who notices the good in others–and speaks it.  Master the womanly skill of the compliment.  It’s so easy to do, once you have the knack of it.  Here’s how:

1.  Consider the context.

You can compliment anyone as long as you keep your words situation-appropriate.  If you don’t know someone well, don’t embarrass them by paying an overly familiar compliment.

I had a nice chat with a total stranger at the pool Saturday.  We started talking when she complimented my daughter’s bathing suit–an appropriate compliment for someone you don’t know.  I’ll see Amanda by the baby pool all summer–but she’s no longer a stranger, owing to that simple compliment.  

2.  Be sincere.

The recipient will sense when you aren’t being honest.  Hollow or backhanded compliments feel like criticism to the hearer.  If you can’t be sincere, you’re better off keeping your mouth shut–because insincere compliments can do more harm than good.

3.  Be specific.

I recently received two compliments at work an hour apart from each other:

Compliment 1:  “I just want you to know that I think you’re a really beautiful person.”  Uh, what?  Maybe I would feel complimented if I heard this from my husband, or my mom–but from my coworker?  Inappropriate, and a little creepy.

Compliment 2:  “I really admire the way you handled that tense situation this morning with grace and tact.  You’re good at staying cool and collected.”  Why, thank you!  Am I good at staying cool?  Because I wasn’t feeling it at the time.  That means so much to me!

Generic complements feel meaningless.  But specific, personal compliments carry great value.

4.  Focus on essence, not appearance.

“Cute shoes” or “nice purse” (or last Saturday’s “cute bathing suit”) work better as conversation openers than true compliments. 

The best–and rarest–compliments go to the heart of who a person is.  You can affirm a person’s very essence with a sincere compliment.  Compliments like these are gifts:  I heard someone just this weekend say he had chosen his career path because of repeated compliments he had received affirming a specific area of giftedness.  That’s a compliment about his “essence.”  

5.  Be generous.

Don’t believe the line that compliments are more believable if you give them only rarely.  If you’re truly focused on looking for the good in others, you won’t be stingy with praise.  (And it will make you happier, too.)

And if you need help finding something nice to say, try this list.

Are you stingy or generous with praise?  What’s the most memorable compliment you’ve ever received?

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  1. Bobbi Applegate says:

    Great post, Mrs. Darcy! I wonder if you have any suggestions about how to appropriately and graciously acknowledge a compliment so both giver and receiver are blessed? I have trouble with this!

    • Anne says:

      Bobbi–Love the suggestion. I don’t know why it’s so hard to graciously receive praise–but there it is! I’ll plan a follow-up post; stay tuned!

  2. Hannah L. says:

    I second the previous request. I get all hung up on how to just say thank you.

    Wonderful post!


  3. Hannah says:

    This is so helpful with raising children! They need approval so much, but generic niceties don’t cut it. I’ve found that especially when the kids are not behaving, you need to compliment and encourage what they are doing well. I still remember a few sincere compliments given to me when I was eight or nine years old! It can make a difference!

  4. Thanks for this post. True, sincere, and character building compliments are the best gifts we can give those around us.

    One thing I’ve run into, in myself and in others, is the compliment with a correction attached. For example, “Gee your flowers are beautiful, they’d look better if you’d weed the garden.” When a compliment is surrounded with a correction, it can hurt instead of encourage.

    I’m watching my own words and trying to separate the correction from compliments, especially with my children. “Wow, your report has great points and shows your writing is improved!”, needs to separated from, “Your handwriting on your report needs to be improved.”

    I would also love to hear some ideas on recieving compliments. It’s so hard to just accept kind words about ourselves, why is that? Thanks. ~Christine

  5. Amanda says:

    I love this post. I find it funny that almost all the prior commenters mentioned what I was going to say which is that it’s equally important to accept a compliment with grace but it seems to be so difficult for most women! We tend to negate compliments “oh this, it’s nothing” or similar things which puts the giver in the awkward position of having to insist! I am definitely guilty of this although now that I’ve been conscious of it it’s more rare.
    Best (recent) compliment came from my boss. He told me I have “unlimited potential” in my career and he is excited to be along for the ride. Just what every grad (and employee) wants to hear! 🙂

  6. Jamie says:

    When I was working full time as a manager, one of the strategies we learned was to put five pennies in your pocket at the beginning of the day. Each represented a genuine, no-strings-attached compliment or praise you had to offer one of your employees that day. (When you paid a compliment, you moved the penny to your other pocket to keep track of your count.) You were not to go home for the night until you’d given all five.

    I thought it was a great tool because it created a habit of looking for opportunities to compliment people and laid the groundwork for solid relationships. :0)

  7. Allison says:

    I, too, want to hear your thoughts on how to recieve a compiment. It can be so akward, I find. Please share 🙂

  8. sarah beals says:

    I have found that it is easier to accept a compliment when you know someone truly loves you. For instance, my dad always tells me that I am great mother. It really feeds the soul when someone is sincere and inspires the hearer to actually want to be what they said.
    On the other hand, I have a “catty” acquaintance who always says things like “Oh, is that a new haircut? Interesting…” That kind of backhanded compliment just makes the person seem even weirder….know what I mean?
    But, truly, I do love this blog and think you are an intelligent and gifted writer. How’s that for a compliment? 🙂
    Sarah Beals

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