Noticing People: the Art of Giving Compliments
When I was a little girl I went with my parents one night to a volunteer evening with an Aid group that was canning food for relief missions. We worked for several hours, and I loved getting to work with the grownups on a big project. Of course, because I was about 6, my range of activity was limited to things like washing the cans as they came out of the sealer, and then drying them to prep for labels.
In the dim, faraway memories of that steamy room one thing stands out in clear relief. Most of the way through the evening, one of the main directors walked over and told me that he noticed how hard I had worked and how much he appreciated it.
I glowed for about a week.
PEOPLE WANT TO BE NOTICED
My parents were doing their best to convey to us the importance of living unselfishly; giving with no expectation of return. We didn't go that evening for honor but because it was important to help in a little way against disaster. Then, all because a Very Busy and Important Man laid aside his duties to notice a six-year-old kid, the idea that people remember how you made them feel and not always what you said or did, was planted squarely in my young head and heart.
The basic premise of unconditional love (which is what our actions should be based from) means that we try to live life unselfishly and without expectation of return. But again, the basic premise means that not only do we live our lives this way, we seek to honor other people this way. It's a two party system:
- How we live
- How we give
THE ART OF GIVING A COMPLIMENT
As with almost all the arts, giving compliments is one of those things that makes life beautiful. Not everyone agrees on a specific art form that is agreeable, but in general we all listen to what another person considers as beautiful. If we were to give someone the gift of art, we would want to give something that has value to them, fits the context of our relationship, and brings them joy. Compliments are the same way.
It can be as casual as telling a stranger you like the flow of colors in their outfit, or as meaningful as taking the time to talk to a kid about something you admire about them.
It's the art of noticing things.
1. How we live: grey-colored specs
The most practical way I can think to describe how we live playing into complimenting people is simple: make a practice of seeing good in other people.
If we are the type of people who always and forever see the negative in a situation or in someone's life we're really not good candidates for expressing our sincerest thoughts, which is what compliments are. It's impossible to "give good" if we can't see the good. To give people something of value that they can remember for years, we'll have to know how to look for that in their character or personality. Not all good things are immediately apparent.
Look for the good. You can't give away something you don't have. Put aside those grey colored specs for a moment and appreciate the life you see.
2. How we give: honor with a side of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies
A compliment is something positive or admirable we think about people, that we say to them; I like to think it is with the purpose of honoring them. It's not rocket science, but because compliments are real things exchanged between real people there is some margin of error and things can be taken badly.
Some people have walls. Maybe the walls shouldn't be there but because of past hurts they just don't have the ability to knock them down yet. Our job in this case is not to force or neglect a compliment, but to give unselfishly not knowing if it will do any good.
There are a few simple things to remember about compliments that open those doors a little faster.
- Get real: a good compliment smells fresh-baked; warm, with a touch of sweetness. I think sometimes we feel vulnerable to say what we admire about someone, but something said simply, sincerely, and clearly is valuable.
- Be sincere: Giving out a rote, social compliment is a little like handing someone a handful of chocolate chips and saying, "here, have a cookie." This is my odd way of saying that a sincere compliment should take some effort. Compliments mean more when they're not a rite of passage each time you see someone.
- Tailor it a little: it's pretty self explanatory. A compliment you'd give to a stranger in a coffee shop is different from a compliment you'd give to a friend at a play date for the kids. It should fit the context of your relationship, otherwise it could make people uncomfortable. A good rule of thumb is to make the compliment match the nearness of your relationship. For someone you don't know something more vague is appropriate, whereas for someone you do know specifics can be nice. You can tell a stranger you love their shirt, and tell a friend that the shirt makes their eye-color pop.
- Try not to compare: a compliment that holds something negative as a base is tricky to give. Perhaps someone did lose some weight or cleared up their acne, but in general don't compare their former self to what they are now. However, in some cases it could be fine, so if you're not sure that the comparison would be acceptable (someone other than a close friend with whom the wins, losses, or insecurities have been discussed) it's probably better left as a simple, one part compliment.
- Throw out some third-party compliments. They could find their way back to the person and mean a ton to them. I once heard about a third-party compliment on an outfit I was wearing (from someone I would never have expected to admire my style) and it just made my day, and week, and possibly even month. Indirect compliments can mean more than a direct one at times.
Basically there are no rules to who you can or can't compliment. I could write up guidelines for the "do this" and "don't do that" (because it is a complex subject) but I think it comes down to noticing the good or beautiful about other people and commenting on it. As mentioned a little bit ago, something said in a simple and clear way, in perfect sincerity, will always hold merit and value.
Take the time to see the good and noteworthy in people's minds, hearts, souls, intellect, abilities, and appearance, and honor them by noticing it aloud. That's the heart of compliment giving.
Bonus: take the time to write down the meaningful, memorable compliments you've been given. You can look back on them and experience them all over again. It's wonderful for times when you are down and out and need encouragement, or a laugh.
Here are a few compliments I have received that lit up my world:
- "Your smile lights up a room."
- "Your eyes are gorgeous. So big, and brown... just like a jersey cow." (I'm still laughing, and we're still friends. It earned me the nickname, "vaca ojos.")
- "You have so many hidden talents. Deeply hidden." (laughed for hours)
- "You have a sort of wholesomeness that is hard to describe. Your relationships aren't flirtatious or artful. You seem.. free." (this one is a golden jewel that shines brightly on my wall of compliments. It meant the world to me then, and always will.)
- "You listen."
A few of the compliments given to other people they loved receiving.
- "One of my favorite compliments was when someone told me my brain is as deep as a sea." (so meaningful and visually engaging)
- "A random customer told me I have great posture." (good posture is a rarity, and it's refreshing to see someone standing straight and tall)
To wrap up, another story I enjoyed immensely is this guy who was ordered to pay his girlfriend a certain number of compliments after he violated a protection order. Poetic justice.
With warmest thoughts,