You Might Be Giving Bad Compliments

The two steps I use to let people know I admire them.

I believe most people are bad at giving compliments.

This is something I’ve realized over the course of my life. Most of us, when faced with the chance to let others know what we like about them, fumble the finish. We don’t stick the landing. But why?

So often, someone you know, or know of, has just done something amazing. You want to tell them! You want to let them know that you like what they did. Not for any personal gain, but just to share your appreciation.

That is a pure, wonderful compliment.

What is a compliment? You might think it’s just a nice thing to say to someone. That’s true, but in my opinion, it goes a lot deeper than that.

A compliment is unsolicited, positive feedback. Nobody asked you for a compliment, but you’ve gone right on out there anyway, and told them that they’re doing something — be it dressing, writing, or just living — really well.

But what you shouldn’t forget is that you’re commenting on an aspect of someone’s life. You’re giving them your approval of something, whether they want it or not. So it’s worth making sure that you set it up correctly, so you don’t come off as insincere or even insulting.

I’ve been paid some wonderful compliments, some of which I still think about to this day. And I’ve been given some well-intentioned compliments which have really upset me, insulted me, or made me laugh because they were so ludicrous.

Compliments are often given without thought but they have a lasting impact. Here’s the two-step process to do them right.

1. Pick a relevant situation.

Giving compliments in a specific situation is ideal. When you see someone doing something that you like, the compliment comes across as far more genuine when it’s delivered immediately rather than later on.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

If you’ve been thinking about someone’s amazing quality for a while, you might be tempted to just drop it in randomly. Don’t. Wait until they display the trait again, and then compliment them.

For example, when someone compliments me out of the blue, I assume they want me to do something for them related to that compliment. It can make me feel uncomfortable or like I’m being manipulated.

When someone compliments me after I’ve just done something good, it feels a lot less conniving and more like they just wanted to let me know I was doing a good job.

If you’re trying to give a real compliment, that’s what you want. Be patient. You might feel like it’s best to give it out of the blue, unexpected, but it’s always best to wait until the compliment is applicable.

2. Compliment on a specific aspect.

One of the men I work with always compliments women on their hair. It’s annoying. Every day, it’s like, “Wow, your hair looks amazing today! And so does yours! And yours!”

Brad, we get it, you think using a hairdryer is miraculous.

Just kidding.

Compliments, in order to be perceived as positive feedback, ought to be both unique and subtle. In other words, don’t just say the obvious and don’t use the same compliment on everyone in a desperate bid to be liked.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to take a personal characteristic you admire in someone, and tell them why you admire them for it.

Photo by Tsolmon Naidandorj on Unsplash

For instance, I’m very good at organizing things. Processes and flowcharts are my forte. When I organize something successfully, and someone lets me know they appreciate the hard work I put in, I feel great. I love being recognized and complimented on my positive qualities.

Recently I organized a big away-day for our whole company. My boss, right after, told me I’d done a really good job and handled all the contingencies well, which let us focus on having a productive day. This ticked all the boxes for compliments: specific aspect, relevant situation, reason why it’s appreciated.

How to (and how not to) give a good compliment.

Giving compliments is one of the easiest things and nicest things to do for people, and it costs $0.00 to do right. That being said, sometimes it can go wrong, or be poorly received, and you might not know why. Here are some tips to make sure you stick the landing.


  • Compliment someone by using gifts instead of words! For example, if they are excellent cooks, give them a fun ingredient when you tell them that they’re good cooks.
  • Smile when you compliment them. Make eye contact. Some folks (especially people with some kind of anxiety) can find it difficult to accept compliments, so it’s crucial you come across as sincere as possible, and not like you’re being mocking or rude.
  • Be clear with your compliments. Don’t leave any room for misunderstandings. It’s easy to come across as jealous or sarcastic with compliments, which is why you should always illustrate why you like what they did.
  • Ask someone to teach you. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but sometimes it’s nicer to have someone ask you for advice when they like what you’re doing.


  • Be stingy with your compliments. They’re not valuable because they’re rare, they’re valuable because they’re genuine.
  • Use appearance-based compliments. First of all, this can sometimes be construed as catcalling which literally no woman I know of enjoys, and secondly it’s far more enjoyable to be complimented on something you worked hard for rather than were born into (e.g. eye color, body type, boobs).
  • Qualify the compliment. For example, someone once told me I was very good at coding for a girl. You can imagine I didn’t take it well. The person was nevertheless shocked when I wasn’t happy with the compliment.
  • Put yourself down. Saying things like “You do this so well, unlike me! I suck at that!” makes people feel like they have to comfort you right after you’ve just tried to be nice to them.

The art of paying someone a wonderful compliment is one of my favorites to practice. There’s nothing better than doing something well, and having someone else recognize your efforts — and even better, tell others, too. It’s an amazing feeling to realize others are paying attention to what I do, and have gone out of their way to tell me that I’m doing it well.

There’s also the benefit to you as compliment giver: you’re sharpening your skills of observation, you’re creating solid foundations in your relationships, and you’re building goodwill.

We can feel that giving compliments somehow puts us lower down on the totem pole, as though appreciating the work of others is a low-status thing. Nothing could be further from the truth: when you’re known as the kind of person who is free, sincere and dedicated with their compliments, you’ll reap the rewards. Plus, you know, it’s nice to be nice. Give it a try.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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