The Art of Giving and Receiving Compliments and Criticism

Both compliments and criticism have the ability build you up or break you down. When giving and receiving both, it goes without saying to practice empathy and respect, but I said it anyway because who doesn’t welcome a criticism disguised as a friendly reminder? I’m about to disclose what I think is the most important nugget of information, the MVP (most valuable point) of this post. It just can’t wait until the end! …Intentions. When giving either a compliment or criticism, do a quick self-scan to determine what your intentions are. This scan might have you reframe and reform your delivery. Word choice is important, but the tone behind it is the driver. Do you intend to help the other person? How else can the “help” be interpreted, condescending or for fostering growth? Conversely, when you’re the receiver of either a compliment or criticism, words aside, noticing the other person’s intentions is the deciding factor of whether you accept the comment. If you remove the words entirely, how is this person making you feel? More about this onward!

Giving Compliments

Some people visibly thrive on the boosts compliments can give, while others become utterly embarrassed. Just because someone appears embarrassed doesn’t mean they are insecure. The insecurity may be in reacting to a social situation or attention rather than their believability of the compliment. In cases like this, I’ve witnessed (and experienced as the receiver) the giver continuing to repeat the compliment or escalate the situation by pointing out why they should feel more confident while the receiver continues to squirm. The compliment would be much more positively effective if it stood alone. In this case, I think less is more, no lessons.  

Beware of backwards compliments. When receiving you can tell it’s backwards because it’s all about the tone. When giving, remember your intentions and if it’s forced to think of anything better, don’t bother. Ambiguity, in my opinion, is more easily and more often received negatively.  Also consider who you are in relation to the person. Compliments coming from women to other women are usually taken very differently than coming from men to women. Sometimes it’s difficult to give compliments without sounding like you’re attracted to the person or flirting with them. There’s a fine line there, but again, wording and tone make a difference. Context/setting is also crucial. Sometimes compliments can do more harm than good, and even if you think you have good intentions, watch your assumptions. They can morph into insults! Do you have to tell them? Compliments are not favors. 

Compliments to reconsider: anything pertaining to weight/physical body (including pregnant women), following with “you should do that more often,” and my personal favorite—unless I’m nestled in a blanket, “You look comfy” when referring to my outfit. A final one to ponder is would you rather have no one notice your haircut or have someone say “Did you get a haircut?/You got a haircut!” and nothing else/change of tone to say, “cute”? 

On the other hand, when genuine and with thought, compliments pass positivity. When expertly executed, that is with discernment and consideration, they’re day-makers! Be specific! I like to give compliments with a question attached so if the person feels awkward reacting they can focus on answering the question. For example, “Where did you get your shoes? I love them!” Intelligence compliments can get tricky, so instead I might make them more narrow. For example, “I always learn from what you have to say” or “I value your insight.” I think people, particularly online, are more likely to mention a problem they have with something or a criticism. Criticism, as I’ll get to, is also important, but don’t forget to share your happy thoughts. Some people can be stingy with their compliments, which on one hand makes them extra meaningful when they are given, but on the other hand imply impossible standards. Everyone needs support, and everyone is in some form affected by others.  

Receiving Compliments

I know lot’s of people (I’m guilty of doing this too) who will receive a compliment by self-deprecating like “This soup is delicious” “Ugh I put too much salt” or “You have flawless skin” “Ew, no. I have acne scars from middle school and I hate the dark circles under my eyes.” “Those jeans look amazing on you” “Not over my fat thighs they don’t.” It can be exhausting to address all of the faults you’ve identified! Countering and devaluing what is said is not the same as modesty. 

Turning it back isn’t optimal either. “You’re a great dancer!” shot with “So are you!” doesn’t usually sound as genuine being bounced back. You’re not allowing yourself to hold something nice. If you really want to give a compliment back, try “Thanks, I was going to say the same about you!” or “Thank you, I learned from the best—I’ve been watching your moves!” A simple thank you is pretty standard for respect (respecting yourself and the giver). Sometimes it’s challenging for someone to give a compliment, so saying thank you is almost like feedback for it. Modesty works well when you additionally give due credit to others, “I couldn’t have done it without…” 

Honor your self-worth. Why might it be so difficult for you to hear acknowledgment for your great quality? Compliments, like criticism, can be helpful teachers. I’ve discovered aspects of myself I didn’t know until a few people have commented about it. Everyone deserves to be recognized for their presence and efforts, including you. 

Giving and Receiving with Intention

Giving Criticism 

The best advice I’ve been given on giving compliments has been the Oreo cookie method (some call it sandwich). You start with a strength (cover cookie), give the few points to work on (cream filling) and end with a strength (bottom cookie). It’s so important to have those strengths in there and strategically placed. Some people might only focus on the cookie part to recover their egos, but others zone in on that filling. Even if you “think they can take it” everybody needs a little buffer. I’ve received a critique that didn’t have the bottom cookie, and while I found all of the information useful, I was still left feeling a little funny because I was left on the note of what to work on. The whole cookie makes a big difference! When giving the filling, you don’t have to make it “double stuff.” Laying out every mistake and what needs work all at once is overwhelming, so pick 2 or 3 points. Are your standards reasonable? Allow the person to take it in; sometimes it takes days for processing especially if what they need to work on is something more long-term or personal. Sometimes it takes more than one person to get through with both criticism and compliments. This is not to say to gang up on the person intervention style, but the person may not receive the message if it’s the first they’re hearing of it. Also keep in mind that not everyone is open for change. 

Criticism is never really wanted, but feedback is helpful when people are looking to improve themselves and develop. Another thing to consider is that although you may be helping them, you’re not the hero. We may think we’re rescuing them or doing them a favor, but that tone often makes the content ineffective. You’ll want to be moderately specific so you’re expressing with as much clarity as possible. Of course, nit-picking and micro-managing are steps too far, but specificity addresses the how can someone improve. Also watch out for projecting your own insecurities and improvement needs. Sometimes our judgements and criticisms are reflections of what we need to work on for ourselves. 

Receiving Criticism

As I stated for compliments, it’s important here as well to cultivate self-worth. Know that there’s always room for growth, but criticism isn’t always accurate and isn’t the complete picture of you. Just as you consider whether the standards you ask of someone else are reasonable, are the standards being asked of you reasonable? This isn’t an invitation to be defensive or say “Hey, I don’t do that!,” but be open to both the possibility of the comment having truth and for it to possibly not align with your truth. If someone says, “That outfit would look better with black pants,” it’s an option but not one you have to accept. If you’re told to work on your writing skills, that’s something worth exploring and asking for help. You can choose not to accept it, but you might be missing out on an opportunity.

Critiques don’t have to crush you. Some people shut down when being critiqued, but recover and see what is really happening. Are they confirming what you already know or a fear? Are you feeling embarrassed? Does your hard work ever feel like enough? Don’t fret, Pet! Try to instead notice what critiques can do for you, the doors they open for your future. Working on your writing skills, to go with that example, might make you a more desirable candidate for a job you’re interested in or help you to more accurately express yourself. If you’re told that you’re too loud after having a few drinks, it can help you to be more self-aware going forward. Speaking of having too many drinks, critiquing someone who has had a few too many is too unpredictable as reactions and emotions are heightened. It’s also not a good idea to wait until you’ve had a few to start “speaking the truth.” It’s not very respectful and can easily be taken all the wrong ways. Make sure you’re transparent while you are sharp enough to choose words and tone wisely. Anyway, use critiques to create a self-improvement plan or incorporate them into your goals. Like compliments, “thank you” is a great stand-by response. 

Be open while holding your truth, and remember that giving and receiving is a karmic dance. If you like this post, please share it! 

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