Too Seldom Is Heard an Encouraging Word: Why and How To Offer More Compliments

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“Idle words are characterless and die upon utterance. Evil words rankle for a while, make contentions, and then die. But the hopeful, kind, cheering word sinks into a man’s heart and goes on bearing fruit forever. How many beautiful written words – words in book and song and story – are still inspiring men and making the world fragrant with their beauty! It is just so with the words you write, not on paper, but on the hearts of men. I wish there were room to mention here the testimonies of great men to the power of some hopeful, encouraging word they had spoken to them in youth and in the days of struggle. But every autobiography records this thing. Booker T. Washington tells how the encouragement of General Armstrong saved the future for him. I know a young man who is to-day filling a large and useful place in the world, who was kept to his high purpose in a time of discouragement by just an encouraging word from a man he greatly admired. That man’s word will live and grow in the increasing influence of the younger man. This world is full of men bearing in their minds deathless words of inspiration heard in youth from lips now still forever. Speak hopeful words every chance you get. Always send your young friends from you bearing a word that they will take into the years and fulfill for you.”

~ The Enlargement of Life (1903) By Frederick Henry Lynch

As I detailed in this seminal post about the importance of hustling, when I started playing football in high school I was slow and fat and generally terrible. But I worked as hard as I could for three years and eventually became a starter my senior year. At the end of my last season, one of the coaches pulled me aside in the hallway, put his hands on my shoulders and said, u201CMcKay, there are plenty of other guys on the team that have way more natural athletic ability than you. You're not a naturally athletic guy, but what you lacked in talent, you made up for with hustle and heart.u201D

That conversation impacted the rest of my life. It crystallized something I had hoped was true into something I began to really believe about my character. Since then, when I’ve faced challenges where I don't feel as up to the task as others, I can hear my coach telling me that I have heart, and it helps me to push on.

Such is the power of compliments.

Unfortunately, even though compliments are a powerful force for positive good for both the giver and receiver, most people are pretty stingy with them. Let's change that and start lifting each other up more often with encouraging words. Here's why you should offer more compliments, and how to do it.

Why We Should Compliment More

Compliments encourage others who are struggling. Studies have shown that when it comes to helping someone reach their goal, positive feedback is most effective for novices. Experts are primarily concerned about evaluating their rate of progress, and negative feedback helps motivate them to want to go further and faster. Beginners, on the other hand, are most concerned with simply evaluating their commitment (can I do this?) and they interpret compliments as signs that they're on the right track and will be able to stick with it.

A compliment can truly be all that stands between someone being successful and giving up. Stand in that gap and offer an encouraging word.

Compliments help children learn new tasks. Given the point above, this makes sense; after all, kids are novices at everything. Researchers argue that positive feedback is also more effective than the negative variety in teaching kids new tasks and behaviors, because it's simpler than negative feedback; the latter involves the more complex task of learning from mistakes.

For this reason, u201CCatch u2018em doing something goodu201D is one of my parenting mottos.

Compliments strengthen (and soften) relationships. Compliments convey respect. Relationships are built on respect. Simple.

Compliments can also serve to melt the ice between you and an antagonist. As we'll discuss below, offering a compliment requires a bit of humility, and it also tells the receiver that even if you don't like anything else about them, you can at least admit to admiring that one quality. That tiny opening can often thaw the freeze into, if not bosom-buddy-hood, then at least a working relationship.

Compliments charm others and increase our circle of influence. People like surrounding themselves with those who make them feel good, and nothing makes a person feel better about themselves than a thoughtful compliment. If you want to make new friends or increase your influence among co-workers and colleagues, make an effort to “catch them doing something good” (it works for everybody!) and then complimenting them on it.

Compliments help you be less cynical. In the wise words of William George Jordan, u201CWe pay too much tribute to a few human insects when we let their wrong-doing paralyze our faith in humanity. It is a lie of the cynics that says u2018all men are ungrateful,' a companion lie to u2018all men have their price.' We must trust humanity if we would get good from humanity. He who thinks all mankind is vile is a pessimist who mistakes his introspection for observation; he looks into his own heart and thinks he sees the world.u201D

For reasons we'll discuss in just a moment, humans have a tendency to concentrate on the negative. When you start looking for reasons to offer compliments, you increase the sensitivity of your antennae for picking up on good stuff — the positive, admirable things that people do every day. Don't look now stony heart, a tear was just squeezed from you.

Reasons You Don't Compliment More Often

Our brains are designed to focus on the negative. The human mind is designed with a negativity bias — we pay more attention and give more weight to negative experiences as opposed to positive ones. There’s a perfectly good evolutionary reason for this. An increased sensitivity to negative experiences kept our caveman ancestors safe from life-threatening risks. u201COkay, so sabertooth tigers don’t think it’s funny when you pull their tails.”

Unfortunately, the very bias that helps keep us safe from risks, often prevents us from noticing the good and praiseworthy things that folks around us do. We’ll notice and say something when our waiter messes up our order, but when he provides impeccable service, it hardly registers, and if it does, we rarely mention it to him.

The first step to becoming a better complimenter is to simply be aware of your negativity bias. Understand that your brain is always hunting for something to gripe about, so make a conscious effort to overcome that bias by searching for the good — it's often right in front of your nose.

You’re self-absorbed. No matter how selfless we may think we are, all of us are self-centered to varying degrees. We’re typically more concerned about our own performance or behavior, and not the performance or behavior of others. Our natural egotism explains why we think everyone notices how nervous we're feeling when giving a big speech. Because we’re paying so much attention to how we're feeling, we assume others are too. They’re not — they're as caught up in their own thoughts and behavior as you are in yours!

Our natural self-centeredness can cause us to not truly pay attention and listen to others — which makes us miss opportunities to offer a compliment. Don’t get so wrapped up in yourself that you overlook the good things others around you are doing.

You see everything as a competition. Complimenting is a way to show your respect or admiration for someone. For many men, offering a compliment seems like an admission that they’re inferior and the person receiving the compliment is better. These folks see everything in life as a competition and don’t want to give someone any more u201Cpointsu201D with a compliment.

However, if someone happens to excel you in some aspect of life, withholding your compliment isn’t going to even the score. In fact, the other person probably doesn’t even know there is a score. Success isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s plenty of it to go around — so quit the petty scorekeeping.

In truth, it's the superior man who is able to respect other men for their excellence, and who seeks to identify and articulate areas where he'd like to improve. Observing and taking notes on the things that others are doing that you want to do too, is an excellent way of facilitating this improvement. And offering the adroit man a compliment can lead to the very best way to improve — finding a mentor. u201CI really enjoyed your presentation today. How did you get so comfortable with public speaking?u201D

You’re shy. If saying a simple “hello” to someone gives you a shiver of anxiety, offering a compliment likely induces a full-on panic attack. Okay, maybe not a panic attack, but some awfully sweaty palms. If shyness is a problem for you, compliments are a low-risk, high-return way to overcome your social anxiety. Most people love to hear how awesome they are and will almost never respond with a cold shoulder to a simple and sincere compliment. It is also a great way to kick-off small talk, if that’s something that troubles you. u201CThis table you made is amazing. How did you get into woodworking?u201D

You don’t want to appear like a brown-noser/kiss-ass/suck-up. Nobody wants to be a suck-up. But don’t withhold compliments because of your fear of being labeled as one. To avoid the brown-noser label, you simply need to follow a few guidelines when offering compliments to folks, especially your superiors. First, be sincere (more on that later). Second, be judicious with your compliments. Don’t go overboard with showering praise on your boss/teacher. Third, offer the compliments or praise when others aren’t around. If sociological studies are correct, your boss probably enjoys hearing your effusive praise and compliments; it’s your colleagues who likely disdain it — as they perceive it as an attempt to elevate your status and diminish theirs. Compliment your superiors in private.

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