Why give compliments?
Because we can. By giving someone a compliment, you are giving them an opportunity to engage in “self-enhancement”, a basic type of motivation that is associated with increased self-esteem, increased sense of control and all kinds of great things.
That said, I think I have finally figured out the ultimate formula – how to give the best compliments in the world!
1. BECOME AWARE OF OTHERS’ AWESOMENESS
Your “drop what you are doing, and let them know” approach implies ACUTE awareness of others’ awesomeness. [And I love this idea of addressing the mismatch of how much positive stuff I think of others, and how much they know. I remember emailing a colleague at 2am once, because I Googled something random and one of HIS articles came up as the first result. And I thought to myself, holy shit, how cool is that that I work with SUCH awesome people? So I emailed him. :)]
Alternatively, you could give someone a compliment from the place of CHRONIC awareness of others’ awesomeness.
The acute vs. chronic is perhaps an awkward metaphor here, so bear with me…
A. ACUTE – specific – it strikes you! – jab in the ribs – omg, look at this post SOLO just wrote, let me tell her how great it made me feel asap!
B. CHRONIC – general – the “nagging in the background” sensation of knowing that X is a great writer, or what have you. – often requires closer (or deeper) knowledge of the person at hand – I find this one harder. And it also comes across as more… meaningful or something? I find that some people don’t actually know what to do with that information. As in: “Whoa, dude… what’s with the deep shit? Are you dying or something?”. Which can be pretty entertaining.
2. IDENTIFY ATTRIBUTES MOST RELEVANT TO OTHERS’ SELF-CONCEPT
If you are after learning how to give the best compliments in the world, simply saying nice things to people won’t do.
Instead, you have an opportunity to affirm someone’s mental representation of themselves. The best compliments will focus on personal attributes that people value about themselves.
According to self-discrepancy theory, we tend to compare ourselves to certain internalized standards, where the self-discrepancy is the gap between the “actual self” and the “ideal self”. A great compliment points out specific ways in which someone’s actual self and ideal self overlap, promoting positive self-concept in that individual.
Maya Angelou’s quote comes to mind here: “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
The social comparison theory points out the importance of different domains.
What are the domains that are central to your self-concept? Being a coach? Father? Husband? Business owner? What are the domains that are peripheral to your self-concept? Being a great runner? Physical appearance? Giving you a compliment in the domain that is central to your self-concept would have a much greater impact.
E.g. if fatherhood is a domain that is more central to your sense of self-concept than physical appearance, then I would expect a compliment about your parenting approach/skills, etc. to be more effective and meaningful than a compliment about the size of your biceps (as impressive as they may be).
So if you can get a feel for person’s identity (and sometimes all it takes is paying attention) – who they identify as, who they think of themselves as, they think of themselves as the person who does what, or does what, or hold what characteristics… and then make a comment about THOSE, the payback/the reward and their appreciation for you recognizing those characteristics will be especially high.
3. MAKE IT KNOWN
No agenda. No sleazy elbow rubbing. Just making someone feel good, because you can.
On a recent flight coming back to Toronto, I remember noticing a woman sitting few rows behind me. I asked her something about the flight, and as she answered, I noticed that she was wearing fake eyelashes – they were very long and made up, and actually made her eyes look very beautiful (BECOME (acutely) AWARE OF OTHER’S AWESOMENESS). This was a woman who clearly put quite a bit of effort into her appearance – her make-up was flawless, her hair was done, she was dressed nicely, etc (IDENTIFY ATTRIBUTES MOST RELEVANT TO OTHERS’ IDENTITY).
I took note of that as she got up and walked to the bathroom (bonus points for delaying the compliment). When she came back, I called out to her, and said: “You know, I noticed something and wanted to tell you – your eyelashes look absolutely gorgeous” (MAKE IT KNOWN). And she completely melted. As she mumbled a shy “thank you”, and it was very clear that this observation – me noticing that about her – completely made her day. She really valued that particular comment. Now for someone who didn’t really look like they were trying very hard to look physically attractive, or to be putting in all that effort of make-up and all sorts of adornments, that same comment, while pleasant, would not have made that much of a difference.
P.S. I may or may not have come up with a 2×2 model to capture the above, describing the most effective compliments (along the relevant-not relevant and acute-chronic dimensions).
And now a test… if you were to give me a compliment based on what you read above, what would you say? Spoiler – I do not give a shit about fake eyelashes.