At the close of my first day of orientation for new teachers, I turned to a fellow first-year teacher and thanked him for sharing what I considered a valuable contribution in the group’s previous session. He turned, looked me square in the eye, and said: “Just so you know, receiving compliments makes me really uncomfortable.” I sat next to him, frozen in discomfort for what felt like an eternity before we were ushered into our next activity.
Before this incident, I generally felt confident about naming the good I see in others and sharing it as a compliment. Encountering my new colleague’s honest discomfort shook me. Since this exchange many years ago, I’ve learned some nuances about how to offer a compliment in a way that makes the receiver feel at ease — rather than embarrassed.
- Believe what you’re saying. Your conviction about the compliment will help you weather another’s potential discomfort in receiving it. Your belief in the good of the other becomes even more important than an imperfect delivery or reception.
- Be specific. For example, rather than just saying, “Thanks for your help,” share how that person’s help made a difference. “Your help cleaning up after dinner allowed me to get out of the house on time and it showed me your support for tonight’s meeting. You’re good at helping when I need it most.” A specific compliment makes the receiver feel more known and appreciated.
- Consider timing and your relationship. If you’re still getting to know a person whom you are impressed with, your compliments can be one way to build trust. As I learned from my teacher-colleague, however, receiving compliments is often uncomfortable. Because people may become suspicious of excessive compliments that are not rooted in an existing relationship, tread lightly at the beginning.
- If unsure, take the risk and give the compliment. Any of us can recover from the discomfort I experienced at new teacher orientation. Hopefully, you’ll have opportunities to recall those memories and laugh with your friend years later, like I did.
My final suggestion is to continue affirming the people closest to you. Exchanging compliments with those who know us best and are part of our lives day-in and day-out is often more difficult than doing so in first period of a new relationship, which is naturally full of positivity.
And be on guard against jealousy, which might suggest, “You don’t really need to compliment this person. Look at how well they are doing! Would a compliment from little old you even matter?” Yes. Your compliments matter. In good times and in bad, those closest to us benefit from our affirmation.
Recently one of my close friends was at a crossroads in life. When his relationship with his fiancé ended, the instability seemed threaten his plans to work full-time as a local furniture maker. Given the amount of significant changes that occurred in his life, my friend began applying for other jobs. His dream to become our town’s leading furniture maker was slipping away.
So I sat down at my dining room table (which had been handcrafted by this friend) and wrote him a letter. I shared what I have noticed and believe about him — that whenever I hosted people for dinner, at least one person praised the hand-crafted table. Many times, the dinner conversation evolved to include the benefits of supporting local artists and the importance of creativity in our lives. Someone’s compliment of a masterpiece inspired the rest of us around that table. It provided a nudge for each of us to pursue our own passions, and it awakened us to see beauty in the craftsmanship around us.
In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “So if my vocation hadn’t been genuine, it would have been killed at the start, for I met nothing but obstacles the moment I began to respond.” Following our calling takes grit and perseverance — we are not built to take on this task alone. One of the most meaningful ways that we can help one another find and live our callings well is by naming the strengths that we recognize in one another.
A loved one’s affirmation helps us remember and better honor the gifts and talents we often take for granted. Our closest friends and family know us best and can point out things we might be blind to because we’re so close to our own experience. They have the eyes to see ways we need to improve as well as the goodness we have within us, and both can help us find a way forward.