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The Six-Point Rulebook of Compliments

It’s supposed to be a good thing, the compliment, so why do we stumble in its presence?

When I began coaching, it’s the one thing I struggled with most. I saw the good in my clients, but it felt awkward trying to craft those feelings into detailed, authentic compliments that didn’t sound scripted, sugary, or meant for a four-year-old.

And being on the other end left me feeling self-conscious, too, like in my coaching academy days when we had to accept praise from our cohort members—face-to-face.

There’s just something very vulnerable about both sides of the process.

So do compliments really complement our lives? Or are we trying too hard, leaving both parties uncomfortable? And does it make a difference what we’re complimenting or how we’re delivering the praise?

With so many questions, I thought it was time for Rulebook #2 (If you missed the first one, click here for “The Four-Point Rulebook of Yes and No”):

    • Rule #1: General doesn’t equal generic.

Parenting experts tell us to give our kids specific compliments (“I love how you colored the trees purple!”) versus general (“I love your picture!”). But when I use this approach with adults, I often try too hard and end up fumbling into the inauthentic zone.

So instead of getting detailed, I keep it short and general, but always genuine.

“You’re doing a great job.”

“You’re an awesome mom.”

“You rock.”

In other words, YOU ARE ENOUGH, the root message of most compliments. It’s what we yearn to hear, that vote of support saying we’re perfectly suited for this life of ours.

And there’s nothing generic about that.

    • Rule #2: Let love flow.

Last week a Roto-Rooter plumber fixed my clogged kitchen sink; he was brimming with politeness and eager to be of service, and at 9:30 pm on a Thursday that’s exactly what I needed. I told my hubby how impressed I was and that I should let his office know. But I never did.

Compliments want to enter the world and reach their new homes, but they need us to birth them. Otherwise they evaporate from our minds without their recipient ever knowing they existed.

And with love at stake, that’s a major loss to the person and the world.

    • Rule #3: Who we are isn’t what we do.

We can praise a person or their actions; both keep the love flowing, one just runs a little deeper.

Under Rule #1, I complimented the child’s action:

“I love how you colored the trees purple!”

But I could have directed praise toward the child instead:

“I love that you are so creative. It’s one of your special gifts!”

Can you feel the difference? The second example is a reminder of inherent worth, not dependent upon an action.

Both types add value, though, so share generously.

    • Rule #4: The best delivery route’s the one that gets it there.

A compliment doesn’t much care how it’s transported, it just wants to get where it’s meant to land. So write admiration in a text or handwritten notecard, voice it over the phone or in person, or express it in a creative way.

Don’t let the delivery logistics stop that love flow.

    • Rule #5: Accept a compliment like it’s a gift.

Because it is. It’s someone using their time to share with us the goodness they see in us. Really, it’s one of the best presents we can receive.

Someone’s praise may even reveal a quality hidden from our own eyes, which I witnessed at a recent workshop where we complimented people we hardly knew. It’s like gaining the benefit of “beginner’s mind” in discovering those things too close for us to see clearly.

But even if it makes us squirm a bit to be praised, let’s accept it anyway. Let’s not deny it or downplay it. Let’s treat it like we would any gift, even an undesirable one: smile, appreciate the kindness, and say “thank you.”

    • Rule #6: A single truth isn’t the whole truth.

Does this sound familiar: “Why did he compliment my wisdom but her kindness? Am I not kind enough? Do people think I’m selfish?” Or have you ever praised one of your kids and gotten this from another: “What about me? Didn’t I do a good job, too?”

A compliment is one piece of the truth of you. Receiving praise for one attribute doesn’t mean you’re deficient in others, and admiration directed at your neighbor doesn’t lessen your value and contributions.

When accepting a compliment, listen to what there’s and not for what’s absent.

With our rulebook complete, here’s the takeaway:

There’s vulnerability in giving or receiving praise because both actions require an opening of the heart. But the love payoff to both parties—and to humanity—makes it worth any bit of uncomfortableness. Because compliments really do complement our lives.

So let me leave you with one of the most beautiful I know:

Namasté, “My soul recognizes your soul.”1


Have a favorite rule or one you’d add to the list? Feel free to share below!


1 McGinley, K. Learn the Meaning of Namasté. Retrieved from https://chopra.com/articles/learn-the-meaning-of-namaste

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