Many people say that flattery will get you nowhere in life. Are they right?
Well, it may be that the right compliment can actually work magic. You can probably think of a time when someone paid you a compliment that completely made your day, not only making you feel like a million bucks, but also changing the way you viewed the person giving the compliment.
Lindsay Liben is a psychotherapist and clinical social worker who sees genuine compliments as little nuggets of goodwill that strengthen connections. "Compliments can be a useful tool to nurture and enhance relationships. Ultimately it contributes to deeper, more intimate connection," she says. Compliments make everyone feel good—you included—and they help foster feelings of warmth and rapport.
But, they have to be done the right way! Here’s how.
Tip 1: make it authentic
Think about something you admire, respect, or like in the other person. Choose something that relates to what you personally find valuable, or better yet, something you know speaks to their values.
Tip 2: make it meaningful
Why does this thing you see in them appeal to you so much? What effect does this quality have out in the world? In other words, think about the meaning of possessing this quality.
Tip 3: make it specific
Keep it simple and compliment something specific rather than going over the top and praising them to high heaven. This goes back to being authentic—ironically, the bigger the compliment, the less genuine it can feel.
People are often suspicious of flattery because it can feel shallow. This only happens when we fail to make our compliments authentic, meaningful, or specific. An example of a great compliment is, “This meal is delicious. I love how there are just so many beautiful colors in this salad!”
This would work well if you were a foodie yourself and knew that the other person cared a lot about good food. The compliment works because it’s real and it means something. If someone else was at the same dinner party and glibly announced, “I think you must be the most amazing hostess in the world; your parties are legendary!” it may have come across as a little insincere. Why? Because that person doesn’t especially care about being a good hostess, it’s hyperbolic, and very general.
Here’s where empathy comes in: you need to carefully understand what a person most values and compliment them in a way that makes them feel good in relation to that value. Do they take pride in their home? Compliment how well the lighting comes together in the living room. Have they made a big effort to look nice that day? Tell them their sweater color really makes their eyes sparkle. Do they place a lot of value on intelligence? Tell them you admire their taste in books, especially their collection of ancient Sufi poetry (provided this is true, of course!).
Sometimes, people warn against complimenting superficial things, like appearances. But this is perfectly fine if done right. Try to link it back to a quality you know is important for that person, i.e., compliment their good taste or how well an item flatters them. Try to compliment things that people do rather than things they are, i.e., “I love that you’re always smiling so much!” will feel better than, “You’re pretty.” Likewise, “Nice work,” is a perfectly good compliment, but why not go a step further and say something like, “Wow, you’ve been so thorough with this. Our whole team found your report a breeze to read!”
Finally, a few more compliment tips:
• Use the person’s name (just once—too often can feel weird and uncomfortable!)
• Don’t add any pressure or demands (You look amazing with your hair down; why don’t you wear it like that all the time? You totally should!)
• Compliment sparingly (once per interaction is enough)
• Under no circumstances give a compliment expressly because you expect to receive one in return
• Don’t use a compliment to defuse conflict or calm down an upset person—no matter how genuine the compliment is, it will come across as insincere and even manipulative
Grasping Bids for Connection
The term “bid for connection” was first coined by therapist couple and (couples therapists!) John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute (you can read about their fascinating work at Gottman.com). It’s what it sounds like: a bid for attention is a person’s attempt to get acceptance or affection from someone else. People, whether they’re in a romantic relationship or not, have one fundamental need they are trying to satisfy when they reach out to others: connection. When you “turn toward” bids for connection, you deepen and strengthen relationships of all kinds.
On the one hand, as human beings we all want to feel seen, heard, and respected by the people around us. We all crave affection and warmth and to be accepted for the people we are. And yet, how many of us are really comfortable outright asking for these needs to be met? More commonly, our bids for connection end up disguised as something else.
Take a look at these behaviors:
• Telling a story about your day
• Talking loudly to catch someone’s attention
• Sharing a link to a post or funny video or picture
• Initiating a hug or touching someone
• Talking about a shared interest
• Complaining or sighing repeatedly
According to the Gottmans, each of the above can actually be hidden bids for connection. Each of them may be a way for the person to say, “I want to connect. Please pay me some attention.” We can respond to them in one of three ways. We can turn toward that bid (by connecting), we can turn against it (by responding with anger or upset), or we can turn away (by ignoring the bid completely).m closely (Carrere & Gottman,:
Again, it’s not just about married couples. The Gottmans noticed that the “masters” tended to scan their environment for appreciation and connection, whereas the “disasters” only scanned their environment for problems and complaints. If we want to improve our social skills and connect more with others, then we absolutely have to learn how to recognize their bids for connection and learn how to respond to them when we see them. Doing this, we build our empathy, but it’s also true to say that we need a little empathy to begin with if we’re going to make it work.
For starters, be aware of when people are actually making bids for connection. This isn’t as mysterious as it may seem. If someone’s talking to you at all, there’s a good chance they’re trying to start a conversation or in some basic way seek a positive response from you. One big mistake we can make is to focus just on the content of what’s being said and not the intention. So, someone says, “Hmm, I wonder why XYZ?” and you think this idle wondering out loud doesn’t really warrant any response. Or maybe you simply answer them factually, as though they were looking for the literal answer to that question. Either way, the conversation shuts down and the other person doesn’t get the connection they were surreptitiously asking for.
Here are a few more examples:
Bid: “Oh man, have I had the longest day today. You wouldn’t believe it . . .”
Turn against: “You’ve had a long day? Sitting on the couch?
Turn away: “Cool.”
Turn toward: “Yeah? What happened?”
Bid: “Haha, look at this guy in the paper!”
Turn against: “Shh, I’m watching my show!”
Turn away: (nods without looking at the story in the paper)
Turn toward: “Here, let me see . . .”
Of course, not everything a person does is a bid for connection. Another caveat is that “connection” might look like different things for different people. But it’s not that complicated—you don’t have to do very much but “turn toward.” That can be as simple as communicating to the person, “Yes? I’m here and I’m listening. What’s going on with you?” Sometimes, you can communicate enormous amounts of validation and attention by literally turning your body to face someone and showing them that you’re giving them your full attention.,
Human beings tend to have an unspoken but silly rule: you are not allowed to explicitly and deliberately ask for interaction, affection, validation, or attention. So we talk in circles around it, pretending to ask for something else, and then find ourselves in confusion or conflict when we get what we didn’t want!
How can you use this insight to make your own interactions go more smoothly and reach genuine connection with others more quickly? Firstly, pay attention to how people are behaving. Don’t look only at the words they’re saying, but a little deeper to try to understand the intention behind those words. Could they be asking for attention, affection (yes, even friends and colleagues can want their version of affection!), validation, reassurance, or just plain to connect with you?
It can be hard to see sometimes, especially if someone’s bids are to complain, find fault, or sigh passively aggressively until you ask them what’s wrong. But the great thing about bids for connection is that when connection is made, they disappear. When people feel you responding to their need for connection (even, perhaps, a connection they themselves are not aware of!), then you will automatically feel more empathetic to them and your relationships will thrive.
The Art of Nonviolent Communicationls for Healthy Relationships,:
The “violence” in this model encompasses verbal aggression, veiled threats, manipulation, force, criticism, judgment, or even excessive praise (which is, after all, a kind of judgment!). Non-violent communication, then, is communication free from these things, in which all parties feel heard, respected, and understood.
Rosenberg was a prolific writer, but his framework can be broken down into four simple steps:
Step 1: Observe without judgment
Saying, “You’re late to the dinner we arranged,” is an observation.
Saying, “Why can’t you do a simple thing like show up on time?” is a judgment.
Step 2: Express your feelings
Expressing feelings is often an overlooked part of communication, sometimes because we simply assume that it’s obvious or that other people should be able to guess. Again, try to express how you feel without judgment, without blame, and without dragging the other person into it in any way. You could say, “I’m feeling unimportant and overlooked.”
Be careful here. Sometimes we think we’re expressing how we feel when we’re actually lobbing grenades at the other person. Saying, “You make me feel unappreciated,” or, “I’m angry at your disrespect,” is actually making a claim about the other person (they are being disrespectful) or blaming them for the way that you feel. No prizes for guessing how the other person will respond if you approach things like this!
Instead, just stick to saying how you feel, and keep it simple. Avoid “you make me feel . . .” Just become aware of yourself and the emotion you’re feeling without attaching an interpretation, theory, or judgment to it.
Step 3: Express your needs
This one is important. According to Rosenberg, the whole point of communication is to get our needs met. Again, you want to frame this in a non-violent way, i.e., without judgment or threat or force. Obviously, saying, “I need for you to not be a stupid idiot,” is not exactly a legitimate need! Try not to frame your needs as something the other person is compelled to take responsibility for.
For example, say, “I have a need to feel appreciated and loved.” Short and sweet. Avoid saying something like, “You need to be better.” Your needs should be expressed neutrally and without reference to any person, in the same way as you would say, “I need air,” or “I need to eat to survive.”
Step 4: Express specific requests
Too many people jump in at this step without covering the previous three. Your requests should be based on and flow directly from your feelings and your needs. For example, if you are feeling unimportant and that your need for appreciation and love is not getting met, then the request you would make is a natural extension from this: you would ask that the other person does something that helps you feel more appreciated and important.
But you need to be specific. Instead of saying, “I’m asking you to appreciate me more,” say, “I’m asking that you show up on time so I can feel like you appreciate me.”
And then, you stop speaking. No psychological games, no blaming or guilt-tripping, no aggression (or passive aggression), and no good guy versus bad guy. You simply claim your own needs and own your own feelings, and in expressing these, make reasonable requests of the other person. Importantly, they are just that: requests. Just because you’ve communicated non-violently, it doesn’t mean the other person must comply with that request. Once you’re done talking, it’s time to listen to the other person. They, too, get to express their observations, their feelings, their needs, and their requests of you.
The NVC model is a brilliant way to defuse conflict and make breakthrough connections when people are feeling hurt or misunderstood. It’s also a very good way to improve your everyday conversations, though, and will help you make a subtle shift in how you interact with everyone you meet. It’s all about tone and intention.
The thing is, all human beings have needs, and in fact, we all share the same universal needs to be heard, respected, and valued for the individuals we are. Conflict happens whenever people feel like these needs are not being met. So, if you approach any conflict or conversation with the intention to express your own needs and respect those of the other person, almost all conflict disappears and real connection can take its place. Here are a few more things to keep in mind as you practice this shift in mindset:
• Remember that the purpose of communication is not to win but to connect
• Always start with an observation, which you can combine with listening (“It seems like . . .”), which will slow things down and signal to the other person that you are actually listening and present, rather than gearing up to fight your own agenda.
• Talk about your feelings and not the issues. People can waste so much time debating details when what instantly creates connections is talking about how they feel about those details
• Be ultra-careful about making other people responsible for your feelings. If you say you feel “hurt” or “misunderstood,” for example, you are implying the other person is hurting you, or that they don’t understand you. It can feel really hard to rephrase your emotions so that they don’t do this.
• Describe rather than judge or interpret. Your initial goal is to just express where you are and understand where the other person is. Sometimes people go into amateur therapist mode and want to elaborate on a grand theory about why things are as they are—avoid this and just state what is going on from your perspective.
Realistically, such a formal way of engaging can be cumbersome and unnatural for people, and those you encounter casually are going to find it weird if you suddenly start talking this way! But, outside of serious conflict, there is one very clever way to use Rosenberg’s principles in “normal life.” Every time you are communicating with someone, ask yourself what their unmet need is and then talk directly to that.
Rosenberg gives an example of a bald teacher insulting and criticizing a male student’s overly long hair. There are many ways to interpret and respond to this, but if you think in terms of need, you’ll probably see that the bald teacher feels insecure about his baldness and is putting the student down to feel better about himself. His unmet need is to feel valued and appreciated for who he is, and his words convey how much he doesn’t feel that.
Whether you use this approach to dissolve more serious conflict in your close relationships, or simply use it to gain deeper insight into the motivations of the people you encounter more casually, thinking in terms of needs and feelings is a powerful way to bring more empathy into your relationships.
It also helps you take responsibility for your own emotions and reactions. If you combine this model with, for example, perspective-switching as described above, you may discover just how your own unmet needs and the unmet needs of others are affecting the way you communicate. Try it the next time you communicate with anyone for any reason: as you talk, quickly check in and ask—what are my needs here, and what are theirs? Then use observation, expression of feelings and needs, and reasonable requests to help get both your needs met. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing.
Use Language Softeners
As the saying goes, it’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it. In other words, sometimes empathy in social situations is not so much what you’re saying but how you’re saying it. This is where language “softeners” come in handy—softer language can help foster trust, empathy, and likeability in all social situations. While most people would love to be kinder and more empathetic, the truth is, we all have a lot to learn to simply be more polite, diplomatic, and tactful!In the:
She explains that although speaking too aggressively, curtly, or rudely doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, people are primarily emotional beings (even and especially when they don’t admit it!), and the entire quality of your connection to them will be influenced by how you make them feel. Empathy is a grand goal, but in our modern world it may actually be that tact, etiquette, and politeness will get more use day to day. For example, you want to share your opinion without causing offense. You have to share upsetting news. You have to ask someone to do something they don’t really want to . . .
In all these situations, it’s “soft” language that will get the job done.
We can soften language in a few ways:
• Changing the pitch, tone, and volume of our voice
• Using different words and phrases
• Presenting options and suggestions rather than making demands and declarations
• Paying attention to our emphasis and intonation
Granted, what is considered polite in one culture may come across as wishy-washy in another, but for most people in most situations, a little tact generally goes a long way. Here are some strategies to use:
Use Modal Verbs
Words like could, would, and might make our requests softer and create a little distance and wiggle room. It’s a way to present things to people without triggering resistance in them, keeping things in the realm of the possible rather than forcing a foregone conclusion. For example, we could say, “You could consider trying again next year when you’re more prepared,” or, “I might not agree with that, I’m afraid.” Both of these sound way more palatable than, “Try again next year,” or, “I don’t agree.”
Focus on the Positive
Your friend is showing you a new outfit and asking for your opinion. Saying, “It’s pretty ugly,” is way harsher than, “I’m not sure it’s such a pretty dress.” It’s a subtle difference. You are no longer saying the word “ugly.” Even though you are saying the dress is not pretty, that’s still the word your friend hears. It’s much gentler. Similarly, “That’s stupid,” is worse than saying, “I’m not sure that’s the most intelligent idea you’ve put forward.”
Using language like “somewhat” or “a little” naturally helps soften things. When you use softeners, you are communicating to others that you are approaching the interaction with good intentions, and the matter is still open to be fixed with a little tact and diplomacy. If you’ve been mistakenly served a chicken soup at a restaurant when you ordered vegetarian, you could say to the waiter, “I’m sorry, but there’s a bit of chicken in here,” to soften the complaint.
Besides grammar, you can totally change the tone of what you’re saying by choosing gentler, more polite terms. Say something is challenging rather than a problem. Say that people are having a disagreement rather than a fight. If you have to take up an issue with someone, start out by framing it as a question rather than barging in immediately with a bone to pick.
Use a Gentler Style
Use the following phrases to bring a little more tact and gentleness to what you’re saying:
“I wonder . . .”
“What I’d like to know is . . .”
“Perhaps . . .”
“If I may ask, (then pose your question).”
“Can I invite you to . . .”
“Perhaps you might find this interesting.”
“I’m curious about . . .”
“I’m not entirely sure, but . . .”
“What if we . . .?”
Think of these sorts of phrases as cushions around the main idea you’re trying to communicate—and cushions make people more comfortable!
However, there are some big caveats here. Being polite and tactful is not the same as being evasive, unclear, or manipulative. We are polite for one purpose only: to make other people feel more at ease, and to help create more harmonious interactions. Politeness is misused when it puts people on edge, communicates passive aggression, or creates confusion. For example, if you really do have a big problem on your hands, it won’t help anyone for you to call it a “little bit of a problem.”
Softened language, like the other techniques in this book, comes down to our main goal with all communication: to understand the other person and to connect with them. It’s smart to use politeness and soft language if doing so eases that connection. It’s not really about the words but our implied attitude of collaboration, courtesy, and civility. We can send a powerful message in how we speak that says, “I would like our interaction to go smoothly.” Sometimes that alone can work magic.
• Empathy is a nonnegotiable ingredient in genuine, connected interactions, and one easy way to create it is to give compliments. Make it authentic, meaningful to the person receiving it and specific, avoiding insincere exaggeration or vague niceties that don’t speak to the person’s values.
• Learn to recognize “bids for attention” because when you “turn toward” these unspoken requests for connection and validation, you deepen and strengthen relationships of all kinds, and respond with empathy. Turning against or away from these requests does the opposite.
• Practice the art of nonviolent communication by using four simple steps: first, observe without judgment or interpretation. Second, express how you feel without blame or making anyone responsible. Third, express your needs plainly and assertively, without implicating the other person. Finally, calmly express a specific request that stems from the previous three steps, without entitlement or force. This will make any difficult or emotional conversation infinitely easier.
• Use language softeners. Softer language can help foster trust, empathy, and likeability in all social situations. Use modal verbs and qualifiers, focus on the positive, be mindful of your word choice and use a gentler, more respectful and unhurried style to communicate a friendly willingness to cooperate.