Positive Feedback: Giveth and Taketh


Values are created only by the free act

of a human agent who takes this or that

to be good or bad, beautiful or ugly,

in the light of his endeavor to give significance and order

to an otherwise meaningless world.

- Marjorie Grene

here is no downside to a well-turned compliment. The giver of the compliment has charmed someone with thoughtful positive feedback. The receiver has been given a sweet, reassuring gift. And everyone feels a little better than they did a moment ago. Why, then, are most of us hesitant to give compliments?

And why, then, are most of us rather poor at receiving them?

Unless this is the first article you’ve read on this website, you will now hear an oft-repeated lament – our culture does not value the relational skills that underlie the bond-creating aspects of being human. You can tell this is true because the culture expends little effort teaching us how to enact these important life skills. A prime example is this – even though research has shown that positive feedback is a nonnegotiable component of strong relationships, it is most often left up to therapists to teach the importance of and techniques for giving compliments. And therapists usually get to do this only when relationships are in trouble, not when relationships are just forming.

If our upbringing fails to teach us these bonding skills, we must self-construct them. We need to understand them fully in order to do that.

By the numbers

Research has found that in a vigorous and ever-blooming relationship there is a fairly constant ratio of positive to negative feelings. And that ratio is 5:1. In other words, when we truly like someone, they delight us about five times as often as they annoy us. I would also be willing to bet that when we are out in the world, there are five times as many people doing impressive things as there are people being irritating. This positive skew is true in the natural world and the built world in addition to the interpersonal world. In other words, there are many specimens of gorgeous trees, compelling landscapes or carefully tended houses along our daily paths. Most likely, then, at any given moment, we are each in a good position to provide many compliments to the world around us.

(Note One: For more information about the need for positive feedback in relationship, visit the psychologist John Gottman’s website: www.gottman.com.)

(Note Two: the negative or critical information we harbor in that 5:1 ratio is often important to pass along, too. I leave that treatment to the article Assertiveness: Speaking Up While Staying Connected.)

The art of the compliment

First off, you have to want to share your positive observations. Compliments are more a pay-it-forward behavior than a tit-for-tat behavior.* Therefore, when you get set to give one away, you have to understand that you will be doing so from a place of generosity. If you find that you are not currently willing to donate a pat on the back to someone you encounter, that insight is worth a think or two. It may be that you are feeling depleted and making a donation today is beyond you. If this is the case, kindly see to it that you get some emotional rest. It may be that your relationship with the person in front of you is currently out of balance because you have been doing too much of the donating lately. If that is the case, it would be good to gently quiz yourself about how that imbalance occurred and then, perhaps, request that the other person put some work into the relationship. Or it may be that you are shy about speaking up, even with a compliment, which means giving one would take tremendous energy for you. This is understandable, for compliments can precipitate some social awkwardness if the receiver lacks good receivership skills.


The Book of Qualities

- J. Ruth Gendler


White Banners

- Lloyd C. Douglas

At Home in Mitford

- Jan Karon



Why is positive feedback an integral part of a healthy relationship?

Sincere and concrete positive feedback is one important way someone can confirm that you matter and why you matter. Early on in any relationship we find it easy to flood the other person with attempts to prove how delightful they are to us...


But whatever the reason is that stops you from giving a compliment, if you are seeing things that are praise-worthy but you are not sharing, I would urge you to wonder about this. For when a compliment works – when you say just what someone is ready to hear and needing to believe – it’s a little like being a fairy godmother. You have brought a little sparkle into that person’s day by witnessing something she or he has every right to be proud of. Who wouldn't want to do this often – sprinkle happiness around like Mardi Gras beads?

Once you decide you would like to be a fairy godmother, you will probably need to train yourself to recognize all the positive thinking accumulating inside your head. When you notice the beautiful hands of your spouse as he is washing the dishes, a neatly made bed in your teenager’s room or a snappy outfit on one of the regular neighborhood walkers, are you registering these thoughts? Can you learn to attend to them and then harvest this bounty of positive energy swirling in your mind? The second step we need to take, therefore, involves being alert to the agreeable things in our life that we may be ignoring. It’s kind of a fun thing to practice – shedding the protective shell of cynicism and looking, instead, for all the delightful things we witness daily. Again, if you are not finding an abundance of likable things going on around you, if your ratio falls short of the 5:1, put some effort into discovering why you don’t seem to be in sync with your environment.

Finally, the trick to giving a well-turned compliment is sincere appreciation of whatever it is that has caught your attention. To that end, here are some tips for artful complimenting:

• The easiest way to sell a compliment and therefore make it distinct from flattery is with sincerity. If you truly value what you are complimenting, the truthfulness of your observation will show in the quality of your praise. It follows, then, that if your feelings on the subject are lackluster, the compliment will lack luster, too. Think carefully before you compliment. Are you truly impressed with what is in front of you? As is always the case in interpersonal relationships, the truth will leak out. So, if you are giving a friend a compliment just to be nice and it isn't wholehearted, you may be doing more harm than good. Work to become someone who is known for giving sincere positive feedback.

• The best compliments are simple, detailed and concrete. Why? Because they have to be believable and the best way to prove that what you are saying is true is to provide a glimpse inside your mind to where the compliment originated. In other words, if your mind is having a positive reaction to something about another person, you will want to show him or her a picture of that reaction. Showing a mind-picture requires an endearing willingness to say frankly what you are thinking. The tone of the message will sound like this: “Oh, look here! This is what’s going on inside of me right now about you.” The concrete details provide the specifics of what you are addressing. Put all together, a vivid compliment will contain the positive tone, genuinely warm nonverbals and the detailed message. That means saying “Oh, wow. I love the fact that your yellow running top matches your shoelaces.” will pack more punch, and be more easily believed, than “You look great.”

• Compliments do not wear out. Many people believe that once you give someone a compliment it is used up. In actuality, when you repeat positive feedback you are layering solid evidence that the thing you thought was wonderful about someone is not only still true, but enduringly true. The spouse with beautiful hands will enjoy hearing about them from time to time. Your teen will appreciate it when you catch him being good. As long as the positive feedback still feels sincere, it will be well received.

• It is true that compliments imply judgment. When I say I like something that you are doing, it is an opinion…a vote. As such it is a form of social pressure. (If I say to a child, for example, “You’re such a good kid to sit there so quietly.” this compliment is telling that child that quiet kids are good kids.) If you are an influential person in someone’s life, you will want to be sensitive to this. But I don’t believe that this truth should stop us from giving compliments. In the best of all possible worlds, there will be lots of feedback for all of us, so that each vote we receive is just part of how we evaluate ourselves.

• If the receiver rejects the compliment, force it down their rotten throat. But seriously, if your compliment is flung back in your face in the “what-this-old-thing?” tradition, try to sidestep the trap of awkwardness. Self-soothe, breathe and smile. It is most likely true that, even though the receiver may not graciously appreciate your positive feedback in the moment, he will absolutely, gratefully, unwrap it later in the privacy of his mind. And then try to avoid inhibiting your tendency to give compliments due to that rejection.

Being a strong receiver

But let's address the effect of negativity on the world's supply of compliments. When you go to all the trouble of knitting someone a tiny sweater of positive feedback, it hurts when you see his or her lack of receptivity, interest and appreciation. It is sadly true that many folks are extremely awkward around positive feedback, but actually, most of us could improve our ability to be a strong receiver of compliments. For, ultimately, to reject a compliment is to insult the person who gave it to you.

One of my roommates in college, Eileen, taught me a lot about receiving compliments. When someone would give her positive feedback she would look right at the speaker, listen to their words without flinching and then a smile would slowly grow on her face until she was fully beaming. The almost slow motion of her physical response was mesmerizing. And then she would respond verbally, typically saying something like: “Really?! You think that? Thank you. What a nice thing to say to me!” The giver of the compliment felt so bathed in her appreciation that you could see him wracking his brains trying to come up with additional positive things to say. Eileen had clearly had lots of practice receiving compliments growing up and I was lucky to have been able to learn from her.

So even if you feel squeamish inside, try to present a calm, appreciative and delighted outside.

Then try to respond with the level of gratitude and respect that feels authentic to you. If the compliment is tremendously relieving to hear and comes from someone high on your list of important people, it would make sense to craft a warm and thorough response. Like a well-written thank-you note, let the other person know just how special their gift was to you. If, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end of a simple compliment, a simple thanks is usually a more natural response.

If you can practice steeling yourself to not flinch when someone compliments you, you will soon be able to fly through the rest of the process of good receivership: listen…unwrap…appreciate…respond.

Being a fairy godmother

There is a sad chicken and egg situation that plays out dozens of times a day in an average life. The chicken: people are reluctant to give compliments because most of us receive them poorly and a poor reception creates an awkward moment that people would just as soon avoid. The egg: we are poor at receiving compliments because so few people give them meaning we get little to no practice receiving them. As a result, there are many, many more nice thoughts running around in our collective heads at any point in time than we ever pass on. Tragically, therefore, the lovely gift of praise or respect lies ungiven in our brains when it could be out and about in the world, helping bolster the zeitgeist. And who knows, as portrayed in the marvelous Lloyd C. Douglas novel White Banners, there may even be a bit of magic in every instance of positive feedback.

*There is a fun tradition, though, called Trade Last. When someone hears a third party say something nice about you, they will offer to tell you what it is when you hear a compliment about them that you can trade.

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Examples of effective compliments:

Your sense of humor is very quirky and clever.

You always remember to ask me how my mom is doing. I appreciate that kindness.

The program that you put together for the festival was inspired. I especially liked the fact that you invited prior recipients to come up on stage at the end.

This application is very impressive. What makes it distinct is the way you juxtapose examples of your work with your previous job descriptions.

Examples of less effective compliments:

You’re so funny.

You're a nice person.

That was a great program.

You are in the final applicant pool.

Examples of effective receivership:

I’m sure glad to hear that. I worry sometimes that my sense of humor is too odd.

You are very generous to say that. It means a lot to me coming from you.

I can’t tell you how good it is to hear you say that. I was so afraid that I had missed the mark completely with that program.

Thank you for taking the time to give me this feedback. So often we never hear back about how our application is received.

Examples of poor receivership:

No. Not really.

It wasn’t any effort at all.

I was just doing my job.

Anyone could have done that.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.