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How to Give a Really Great Compliment Without Being Weird

There's a definite art to it.

Used correctly, a compliment can boost a person’s self-esteem and turn their entire day around. Wielded incorrectly, however, and a compliment can fill a person with doubt and mistrust. What you say, how you say it, and how often you say it can make a big difference. If you’re a boss and compliment a coworker too many times, you risk seeming disingenuous. Compliment your spouse on how good she looks with makeup on, and she could interpret that as a sign that you think she’s ugly, even if that’s not how you meant it.  “Whatever we compliment may become a part of that person’s sense of self-worth,” says Vironika Tugaleva, a life coach and of The Love Mindset and The Art of Talking to Yourself. “Be mindful of which behaviors might increase and decrease because of your compliments.” This is to say that there is an art to the compliment. Used properly, it’s a powerful tool. Here’s how to do just that.

What is a Good Compliment?

Compliments, good compliments that is, are powerful things. They indicate to others that you take notice, that you identify the effort they put into something or a particular talent they have. They show admiration and appreciation. They’re specific and well thought out. They don’t overwhelm or ask for anything in return.

Compliments work best when they’re unprompted. If your wife says, “Doesn’t this outfit look good on me?” before you’ve had the chance to tell her yourself, then you’ve already lost. Additionally, specificity is key. If you can point out something specific about a person, that shows attention to detail and gives sincerity to the compliment. So if your wife brings out a new blue dress, don’t just say, “That dress looks nice.” Hitting her with, “Wow, blue really looks great one you.” elevates the compliment and shows her that you’re sincere. Even better? “You wear off the shoulder dresses so well.”

Above all else, the key to a good compliment is positivity. “Always phrase your compliment in a positive way,” says Jill Lieberman, a counselor, motivational speaker and the author of Choose Happy. “Even though your heart may be in the right place, you want to make sure your words are well received.” Think: “You look so well rested!” instead of “You don’t look tired today.”

How Often Should You Compliment People?

This can be a delicate balancing act. Don’t compliment enough, and you’ll come across like a self-centered jerk. But, on the other hand, if you lay on the compliments too thick and too often than you’ll come off insincere at best and creepy at worst.

So where’s the line? Again, it comes back to sincerity. If you genuinely want to pay someone a string-free compliment, then you should think about the compliment and then go for it. But always trust your instincts. If there’s a part of you that’s wondering if you’re being too complimentary, that might be a sign that you are. “Use the general rule of relationships to help guide you,” says Heather D. Nelson, author of Just Stop: 10 Things Everyone Should Stop Saying. “The emotionally closer you are to a person — ‘are,’ not ‘want to be’ — the safer you should feel to compliment them with more frequency.”

At work, this can be a bit tricky. Experts advise keeping the compliments work-related, although if you have a more personal connection with your co-workers, the occasional bit of flattery is acceptable. However, be sure to spread out the wealth or you might look like you’re currying favor. “Make sure you are an equal opportunity complimenter,” says couples consultant Lesli Doares, “and you won’t be perceived as disingenuous or out for something.”

6 Rules of a Good Compliment

Now that we’ve learned some of the background surrounding compliments and how we should use them, let’s take a look at the ground rules for doling out a kind word:

Focus on the Positive: Asking someone “Did you lose weight?” might sound like a complimentary thing, but it inadvertently sends the message “Didn’t you used to be fat?” If you want to praise someone for shedding some pounds, lead with “Wow, you look great!” and let them take it from there.

Be Genuine: Never say something because you feel like you should or because you’re trying to stave off an argument. A person will pick up on a fake compliment pretty quickly and it will impact their trust in you. 

Don’t Add Qualifiers: Nothing kills a compliment faster than a follow-up. “Dinner was delicious, but…” Everything you said before “but” is now null and void. Keep the compliment focused on the good things and save the criticism for later. 

Don’t State the Obvious: If you know someone who is always being praised for their looks, why not try to find something else to zero in on? Complimenting something different shows the other person that you’re interested in them on a deeper level and will show your sincerity.

No Backhanded Compliments: Saying something like, “For you, that’s a really big accomplishment” or “You look great for your age” makes you seem like a dick. It’s an insult shrouded in a few nice words. It’s passive aggressive behavior and guaranteed to be an instant turn-off.