How To Give A Compliment Someone Will Really Take To Heart

Photographed by Renell Medrano.
Is it just me, victim of snark culture and avoider of sustained eye contact that I am, or is being plain old nice surprisingly difficult — especially around the people who matter most? It's one thing to tell an acquaintance that you like their jacket, but it's another to tell your lover, partner, or parent, that you truly and deeply appreciate something about them.
For some, giving a compliment and meaning it requires little to no effort. But for others, getting it right can prove rather stressful.
The struggle is twofold: You want to say something from the heart, so constructing the compliment can feel like an effort in itself. But then comes the delivery — and the risk that the recipient of your compliment doesn't quite buy your praise, or feels awkward receiving it.
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We spoke with Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist and couples therapist based in New York City, about the art of giving a meaningful compliment. Read on for five helpful tips to make your kind words really resonate.
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Consider your motives.

It sounds obvious, but it must be said: Don't say something that you don't mean. A compliment given in order to seem nice, or as a preface for criticism or asking for a favor, is easily seen through, Lundquist says. For example, he says, praising someone for "completing a task as though it's more impressive than it really is" will always sound condescending in the end.

Before you say anything, take a moment and ask yourself who your compliment is for — you or the person you're supposedly praising. If it's the former, rethink your approach.
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Tailor your compliment to the situation.

Lundquist says there's nothing inherently wrong with complimenting someone's appearance, as long as your relationship is more personal than professional. "Bosses and coworkers, especially of the opposite gender, should avoid compliments related to physical appearance or dress," he says. Also, don't offer up a compliment that suggests you know someone better than you actually do. A stranger isn't going to appreciate it if you try speaking to their core qualities. Instead, Lundquist says, base your praise on a firsthand experience.
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Focus on effort.

Again, if you know someone well enough, complimenting their looks isn't off-limits, but Lundquist says it can be more meaningful to mention something they've done, instead. "People especially like acknowledgement for things they've done or things they can control, as opposed to things that are beyond their control." So, it isn't terrible if you tell your friend that they look pretty today, but it might leave a more lasting impression to tell them you like how they did their hair.

Or, go beyond their appearance entirely and praise them for a recent accomplishment, again focusing on their actions. "Stop and think," Lundquist says. "What's exciting about this person? What have they put effort into?"
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Be specific.

"Empathy is the operative skill in giving a compliment," Lundquist says. "Put yourself in the other person's shoes." Whatever you're choosing to praise, chances are it fits into the rest of your recipient's life, so acknowledge that in your compliment. Point out the effort they put in or challenges they faced, he says. For example: "That client was really pissed, and you totally helped her come around and feel taken care of."

Showing that their hard work didn't go unnoticed will put your compliment in context and give it even more substance.
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Keep it casual.

You don't need to save your compliment for a grand moment or for a letter of praise. Just say it out loud, face-to-face, when the moment feels right. Otherwise, Lundquist says, you might run the risk of coming off as overly formal, which can easily slide into seeming creepy. That said, if you're already, say, writing a note to someone, there's nothing wrong with throwing in a compliment. Regardless, saying something nice needn't be a whole song and dance.
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