Mark’s Blog

It’s a tricky business

Giving a compliment is easy, isn’t it? Well, yes. It is. But here’s the thing. If you’re not very careful you can find yourself in a bit of trouble.

We can sound sarcastic

To start with, despite your good intentions, sometimes a sincere compliment can be taken for just the opposite. You don’t want to accidentally give a back-handed compliment or sound sarcastic. Unfortunately, saying something as simple as “You’ve taken off a bit of weight. Well done.” to someone who still has a bit of a way to go, mightn’t sound as good to them as it does to you. In fact, it could sound like a good old fashioned put-down.

We can seem like we have an ulterior motive

Have you ever heard someone give a compliment you felt had an ulterior motive? What you don’t want to do is sound like one of them. But if you’re not careful, a well-intentioned compliment can sound like you’re just trying to get into someone’s good books or get a compliment in return.

We can come across as too personal

One of the biggest worries is to inadvertently overstep the mark and be too personal or too familiar. Or worse still, being seen as flirtatious when that’s not your intention. We don’t want to be seen as ‘inappropriate’ – or more colloquially, sleazy. A woman told me the manager of a café – a person with whom she only had a typical manager-customer relationship – told her she had sexy lips. Now this might be fine if you say this to your partner, but to a customer it’s likely, to put it mildly, be in poor taste.

We can embarrass the person

And we don’t want to embarrass people or put them in an awkward situation. Given we were trying to make them feel good this is the very opposite of what we were trying to do in the first place.

So how do you give a compliment and have it accepted as the positive and sincere comment it was meant to be? Sadly, it mightn’t be possible to never give compliment and have it misunderstood. However, the following handy hints will help you give them and at the same time, avoid the pitfalls. Enjoy.

The 9 handy hints

1. Don’t be shy

In general, people like positive things said about them, so don’t be shy about giving someone a compliment. Having said that, I’ve seen someone give them so often, people find it a bit strange.

2. For good not just amazing

You don’t have to wait for someone to do something absolutely amazing or to wear the most amazing coat ever, before you give them a compliment. For example, if someone did a good job chairing the staff meeting, consider telling them: “You did a good job chairing the staff meeting today Sue. I appreciated it.”

3. It’s okay to come via a third person

You can give a compliment to someone because of what a third person has said. “I heard John is a very happy with the work you did on his house. Well done.”

4. For effort not just results

Don’t only compliment people for their good results. Consider complimenting people for their effort as well. But be warned: if it’s not delivered well, it can sound condescending and more like something you’d say to a child than to an adult. “Thanks for all the input on the Johnson case Peter. It was really useful.”

5. Sound sincere. Don’t exaggerate.

Only give compliments which are sincere and perhaps more importantly, make them sound sincere. Don’t exaggerate and don’t embellish.

6. Stay within the boundaries

It’s best to stay away from complimenting people on anything that can be seen as overstepping the boundaries of good manners and good taste. Be especially careful about making comments about someone’s body. The golden rule here is: when in doubt, keep your mouth closed.

7. Don’t expect to be thanked

Most people respond to a compliment with a simple ‘thank you’ and typically add a bit of information. For example, let’s say you tell someone you really like the shirt they chose to wear, they might respond with something like: “Thank you. It was on sale and I couldn’t resist it.” However, some people respond with nothing more than a polite smile and if they do, it’s usually best to just let it go and move on.

8. If they discount it, don’t argue

Some people respond to a compliment by discounting it. For example, let’s again say you tell someone you really like the shirt they chose to wear. In response, they might say something like: “Thanks but it’d look better if I hadn’t put on so much weight.” If someone discounts your compliment you could take it to mean they think you’re silly for thinking their shirt looks good. But in almost every case, their response is simply the result of them being embarrassed about getting a compliment, them having things going on in their life you’re perhaps not aware of, or them simply not knowing how to respond graciously. In such cases, it can be best to say nothing. However, if you want to say something, try something short and simple like: “I like it. I think it looks good.” and leave it there.

9. Don’t expect a compliment in return

This is not what giving a compliment is about. And don’t compliment someone only because they’ve complimented you.

And here’s two extra things to think about

Consider being specific

For example, although it’s fine to say something like “What a good place you have here.” some people like it more when you’re more specific and say something like “I really like what you’ve done with outdoor seating. It’s looks elegant but still somewhat informal.” And instead of saying something like “Sue, you’re a good cook.” consider saying something like “I really liked the lasagne you made. It was terrific.”  

Consider using a variety of verbs when giving compliments

It can get a bit ordinary if you always say “I like this” and “I like that”. So consider saying things every now and then like: “I admire …” or “I’m inspired by …” for a change.

Have a great day and all the very best,


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