You’ve probably been taught that giving compliments build relationships. In the self-help classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie stressed the importance of “giving sincere and honest appreciation” to others in life and work. He’s not wrong, but the thing is that showing real appreciation is difficult to do.
How many times has someone given you a “compliment” and you just know they’re trying to get something from you? Compliments can easily veer into flattery and feel insincere, leaving the recipient wondering about the giver’s hidden agenda.
Here’s what it takes to avoid all that–it’s easier than you think.
Why Your Compliments Sound Empty
Before I became an executive coach, I thought I had this whole “appreciating others” thing down. But it turns out I had a lot to learn. One of the most crucial insights I picked up when I began my coaching training is the difference between complimenting someone and acknowledging them.
Compliments are shallow, generic, and often focused on the giver rather than the recipient. This kind of praise often starts with the word “I” such as, “I like your outfit.” You might think you’re doing something nice for the other person by praising their sartorial sense, but you’re actually not. By starting your praise with “I,” you’re subtly making it about yourself: You’re using what they’re wearing to make a statement about your sense of taste.
Other compliments don’t start with “I” but are ineffective for other reasons. You probably don’t think twice about saying “Good job!” to a colleague, for example, but that statement doesn’t contain much useful information. Think about it: If someone said that to you, wouldn’t you want to know what you did well, rather than have to make assumptions? Tossing off generic compliments like these might be fine for interactions with acquaintances, but in professional settings it can seem disingenuous; you might even be seen as shallow if you do it too often.
Acknowledgements, on the other hand, go beneath the surface, are specific, and focus on the recipient exclusively. They do take more effort than casual compliments, but they’re way more powerful as a result. Acknowledgements build relationships by making the recipient feel understood and valued. For managers, giving this kind of focused appreciation helps everyone on your team identify their strengths and feel good about exercising them. The whole point of praise, after all, is to give actionable feedback.
Get Rid Of “I”
The easiest way to turn your compliment into an acknowledgment is to take yourself out of the phrasing you use. Instead of telling your barista, “I love your shirt,” say, “You have great taste. Your style really suits you.” In fact, my own barista modeled this acknowledgment technique the day I grabbed a chai to help me finish writing this article: “Your face is glowing. Your glasses are so stylish,” he told me, “and that jacket! Your look is on fire today, Suzan!” I left the cafe with my chai in hand and a big grin on my face. I’d actually been making an effort to look better with my clothes and had put on a bit of makeup. His acknowledgement let me know those efforts were paying off, and that I was on the right track with my mini makeover.
To turn a compliment like “good job” into a powerful acknowledgement, make it more precise. Drop generic statements and focus on what the person specifically did well. Substitute “Good job!” for, “You have a talent for managing projects under pressure. Your ability to stay calm helped the team stay focused on finding solutions.” I guarantee that the recipient will replicate whatever steps they took to earn an acknowledgment like that. In addition, when you’re hyper-specific, they’ll remember not just what you said, but that you understood and valued them.
It’s hard work to unlearn ingrained habits, but even tiny tweaks can make a difference–and not just to other people. When you see someone smile from your expertly delivered acknowledgment, it can actually make your day, too.