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Healthy compliments. (Stresslines).

You may have heard the story of the less than gracious teenage boy who was told by concerned parents that his chances with the fairer sex might improve if he could learn to give an occasional compliment.

At the next dance, he recalled the good advice and told his Ginger Rogers of the moment, "You sweat less than any fat girl I know." The misguided attempt at a compliment fell far short of Cupid's target.

Many of us will refrain from giving a compliment because we're not sure how to say it; we don't know if the timing is right; we don't want to appear like we're sucking up; or, worst of all, we don't even recognize that the occasion calls for one. Certainly we all eschew a diagnosis in the "sweat less" category.

For a variety of reasons, occasions pass and good words remain unspoken, even when they're at the tip of the tongue.

Sad. Compliments that are thoughtfully delivered and appreciatively received remain a wellspring of human interaction and a source of joy to both giver and receiver. A compliment, of course, is a form of recognition that is positive in three respects: It acknowledges a reality worthy of notice, it gives credit to the person responsible, it places the giver of the compliment in a beneficent role.

And, really, isn't it simple? No heavy lifting necessary. No freight charges. No tariffs. No taxes. No graduate degrees from the institute of interpersonal politics required. Just a few well-chosen words delivered with a friendly intention.

In fact, well-spoken compliments may achieve even more than intended.

One of the many paradoxes in life is that the difficult achievements in our lives go unrecognized. They occur in the private struggles, in the unseen crucible where limits are tested and character is honed. No one will ever know or honor the unseen dimension. It remains the respective responsibility of every moral warrior to credit and honor those inner accomplishments.

But, a good word about something visible from someone who cares and notices can tap the unseen dimension. A moment of thoughtful recognition can send us home with a little more cheer in the vest pocket because it also may energize everything that's gone unnoticed and unstated.

The Delivery

Compliments that matter hit the bulls-eye. Such compliments go beyond observations of new suits and hairstyles. Not that there's anything wrong with noticing publicly that someone has spruced up his or her veneer; usually, people spruce it up with the intention of getting noticed. Nonetheless, such compliments deal only with the superficial, and they fail to cut into the deeper layers of human needs.

Bulls-eye compliments, on the other hand, address who someone really is and/ or what they have accomplished. They hit us where we really live--in the heart of the personal struggle to overcome laziness, pettiness, orneriness, and the various sins of the flesh and spirit that mire us down and prevent us from achieving progress in character or the accomplishment of difficult endeavors.

When someone has accomplished a featin this arena, a bulls-eye compliment underlines, highlights, and italicizes the recognition of the feat and the consequent sense of being understood and appreciated by another who is capable of understanding and appreciating core issues in people's lives. Bulls-eye!

Of course, when you know that someone lacks character, the very best compliment you can give will probably involve the new hairstyle or the label inside the suit they're wearing. Of course, if they lack character, it might be better to pass, lest you give the impression of endorsing the superficial as a way of life.

On second thought, even lightweights in the character department might deserve an occasional nod for doing best that which they do only. But, remember: Kudos for the shallow usually require a heavy dose of syrup. Use the ladle.

The Reception

Taking a bulls-eye compliment well is in itself a sign of character development. Receiving a compliment poorly is a surefire method of turning off that faucet. When someone has left the beaten path of superficial interactions and extended a "welldone," good form alone requires an adequate acknowledgment and a gracious reply. Hemming, hawing, aw-shucksing, and other forms of misplaced humility turn an occasion of celebration into an episode of mutual shoe-gazing.

Both the compliment-extender and the compliment-receiver deserve better.

Neither embarrassment nor showboating dignify the compliment. Step up and accept the praise like someone who really deserves it. Key to the 'reception? A heartfelt "Thank you very much," smile included, with riveting eye contact that telegraphs appreciation of the recognition. Of course, if you're not accustomed to being complimented, you might be caught off guard. But not a second time. Practice makes for learned graciousness. If you're handling something well, don't you deserve to be recognized for it?

Always step up and honor the complimentor. Two don'ts: Don't ever use a compliment as a springboard for a bout of narcissism; and secondly, even if you're embarrassed at the recognition, don't attempt to sneak through the situation without properly acknowledging the good will of the congratulator.

The payoff? Compliments tend to reap unexpected dividends. If you create the habit of extending sincere compliments to those who have earned them, you might find that you'll even receive one when you most deserve it (or need it). It could make your day.

Dr. Bernard G. Suran, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and diplomat and fellow of the Academy of Clinical Psychology and the American Board of Professional Psychology. This column is published under the sponsorship of the Quality of Life and Career Committee. The committee's website is at The Quality of Life and Career Committee, in cooperation with the Florida State University College of Law, also has an interactive listserv titled "The Healthy Lawyer." Details and subscription information regarding the listserv can be accessed through the committee's Web site or by going directly to
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Author:Dr. Suran, Bernard G.
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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