The art of being complimentary

November 1, 1998

Pharmaceutical Representative

An engineer was reviewing plans for construction of new offices with his client. As they discussed issues, he took extensive notes on a legal pad, sometimes tearing off a sheet of paper to sketch how an alteration might be arranged.

An engineer was reviewing plans for construction of new offices with his client. As they discussed issues, he took extensive notes on a legal pad, sometimes tearing off a sheet of paper to sketch how an alteration might be arranged.

When the session ended, the client thanked him for his time and input. "By the way," she added, glancing at the notes he had taken. "You have very nice handwriting." Embarrassed, the engineer answered, "Oh, no, I don't. Really, it's just my pen."

Amused, the client responded, "Well, I have the same kind of pen, and it never made my writing look like that!"

Many of us have been taught from an early age not only to avoid showing pride in our accomplishments but to tune out anything that comes close to a compliment. When someone praises a suit or outfit, we may modestly say, "Oh, this old thing!" even if it is a brand-new purchase. We know that jealousy and resentment may result from extra attention, so we downplay our contribution to an important project. This deprives us of enjoying the praise we have earned. It also can make people reluctant to give thanks or compliments, since the likelihood that the favorable remarks will be dismissed is high.

Others of us make the opposite mistake: when someone praises us, we puff up and say, "Yeah, I'm really something, aren't I!" If you persist in doing this, you will develop a reputation as a conceited or arrogant individual.

It is possible to accept thanks and appreciation without false modesty, preening, or boasting. When you do so graciously, you show respect for the person giving the praise because you are not taking issue with the content of the remark or implying that you have an inflated opinion of yourself. What's more, there are times when compliments are required, and you should be prepared to give as well as receive them.

Courtesy of compliments

In many companies, it's taken for granted that you will do a good job. That expectation doesn't mean that a good job is easy to do. Every day, employees overcome obstacles ranging from difficult personalities to technological hassles, from constant distractions to insufficient staff, and they still manage to do quality work. For this, they receive a paycheck.

However, along with receiving a paycheck, employees need to receive appreciation for a job that's well done. How frequently this recognition is paid varies within industries as well as with the individuals involved, but some praise should be part of every work environment. When in doubt, people should err slightly on the side of excess.

Clients who hire us ask us to coach executives about how to recognize their employees and how to acknowledge employees' help and contributions. According to a study of personnel directors, 26% of employees leave because they do not feel they receive enough recognition.

The number of compliments you give to coworkers will reflect your personality as well as your philosophy or management style. The way praise is delivered, though, has a great impact on how it's received.

When praise comes too late after the event, it loses some of its impact. When someone doesn't receive expected praise, he may be insulted. When someone who is lavish with praise gives a compliment, the praise loses some of its impact.

Six ways to give praise

You certainly don't want a compliment to backfire and make someone feel worse than if you had never issued it. To ensure that your praise has the intended positive effect, follow these Praise Pointers.

Be consistent. Compliment everyone who deserves it. If you leave out one individual or one group, even inadvertently, those who are left out will be insulted. Also, be equitable in your reasons for compliments. For instance, it's sexist to compliment women only on how they look and men only on what they do.

Be specific. It's nice if you say, "That report really seemed like a lot of work." However the praise will be even more effective if you say, "Breaking all the sales figures by category helped me see your point about market trends." Being specific can be especially helpful if you are reluctant to praise because the recipient may get a big head, or because you want to improve the performance of a problem employee. Recognizing a particular action makes clear exactly what you approve of, without issuing a blanket endorsement.

Be direct and eliminate qualifiers. Go ahead and say you like something, assuming that you did. Qualifying a compliment detracts from it, as in "Pretty good work on the McKenzie presentation."

Don't confuse praise with feedback. You generally don't want to give a compliment with one hand and take it away with the other. If you say, "You did a fine job on the briefing for the managers. It would have been even better if you had incorporated graphics," your praise will lose some of its punch. Allow the person to enjoy your praise and then, the next time he's preparing a report, suggest in advance that he add graphics. Similarly, don't attribute motives to the person you are complimenting. It's insulting to say, "Nice suit. Do you have a funeral or a job interview after work?"

When appropriate, give praise in public or in writing. The impact of a compliment increases dramatically when it is heard by others or when it is made permanent in writing.

Be timely. There's generally no real reason to delay praise. If you don't delay, you might forget to give it at all. In addition, it's a basic principle of behavior modification that immediate praise helps someone understand the connection between two events and encourages a repeat performance.

Accepting acclaim

Many people are so embarrassed or surprised when they receive a compliment that they become flustered in their response. If accepting compliments were an easy thing to do, Hollywood actors and actresses wouldn't need to read those little note cards when accepting an Oscar! Here are some steps to help you with your "acceptance speech."

Acknowledge the compliment. This confirms that you heard what the person said. It should be the first step you take after receiving praise. If you say nothing other than, "Thank you," you will have accomplished this goal.

Don't argue with or attempt to qualify the compliment. If someone says you did a good job on a report, don't say, "Oh it was nothing," or "Well, it wasn't as thorough as I had hoped to make it." You're not only putting yourself down, but are insulting the person giving the compliment by implying that he or she doesn't have sufficiently high standards. Instead, you can say, "Thanks, I worked hard on it."

Even when you genuinely disagree with the reason for the compliment, don't insult the speaker. If you sincerely believe you did a lousy job on the report and are astonished to hear it praised, don't say so. Instead, you can say, "I really appreciate your words," or "Your words mean a lot to me."

Don't add to the compliment. Trying to make more of a compliment is a faux pas. If someone says, "You impressed the client," it would be rude to say, "Impressed them? I blew them away! They didn't know what hit them!" This will come across as boastful, even it happens to be true.

When possible, anticipate praise and prepare your response. If you think you might be praised, take a cue from Oscar winners and consider in advance what you might say. Are there others whose contributions you wish to acknowledge? Lessons you learned from the experience that you wish to share? Try out your response by tape-recording it. How does it sound?

What a nice thing to say

Have you ever been envious of someone who always seems to know the right thing to say, regardless of the circumstance? Well, so were we - until we stopped to consider that they weren't born that way.

Start listening closely to others in situations in which you're at a loss for words. If someone says something that seems especially appropriate to you, make a mental note. In this etiquette arena, you're not judged on originality but on effectiveness. People learn what to say when they don't know what to say by hearing what others say, trying out different expressions in different situations and practicing or mentally rehearsing for spontaneous situations they may inevitably confront.

So can you! PR

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