The Power of Compliments

When I was in high school, I had a guidance counselor who took a whole class period to teach us how to accept compliments. I remember the eye rolling and sarcastic glances as we all looked around the room at each other to convey that we thought this was dumb (at worst) and a waste of time (at best).

The lesson – in a nutshell – was that it is okay to just say thank you. There is no underlying need to return compliments or find something equally admiring in return.

The return compliment

You know how it goes…

Mary: Sally, I love your earrings – they are so pretty!

Sally: Thanks, Mary. I like yours too!

The downplay

Even more importantly, you never want to brush off the compliment as human nature is wont to do.

Mary: Sally, I love your earrings – they are so pretty!

Sally: These old things, I got them at a rummage sale!

Nope. Not good. As I learned that day, by not simply accepting the compliment with grace, I demean the person giving the compliment. So, as awkward as it felt to my 14-year-old self, the best response when complimented is to accept compliments with enthusiasm because this, in effect, makes the compliment-giver feel good too because you are saying, “yes, you have great taste!”

The perfect response

Mary: Sally, I love your earrings – they are so pretty!

Sally: Thanks, Mary! I love them too; my grandma gave them to me.

This may seem entirely unrelated to my role as a teacher now, but the positive impact of giving and receiving compliments is something I remain completely aware of. A person feels good when complimented, even if it is about a thrift shop find that cost next to nothing. And the complementor feels good when the other person accepts the admiration in the spirit it was meant.

I walked away from that one-hour class with not only a better understanding of how to graciously accept a compliment, but also a better awareness of human nature and the role that compliment giving plays in relationships.

Why compliments matters

You see, we all have a fundamental desire and need to feel appreciated. In fact, when we feel appreciated, our guard goes down and we are then better able to accept constructive criticism or advice.

In fact, I have largely based my style of feedback and coaching upon this understanding. If I want my students to hear and absorb my true and honest feedback, I must first break down their barriers and walls. The easiest way to do this is to offer a compliment. Mind you, compliments must always be genuine and heartfelt. But this is not as hard to do as you might think.

Often as a teacher, the mindset is to correct what is wrong. And while I agree with this to some degree, I also know that my goal must be twofold: first celebrate what is great, and second offer coaching to fix what is lacking. When I approach my interactions with students with this twofold approach, I am much more likely to see a positive outcome and make a meaningful impact on student learning.

What compliments look like in practice

student receiving compliments

In a zoom meeting, if a student asks a question that I assumed was perfectly clear in the lesson, I may be tempted to be curt or irritated at the lack of attention to the material I laboriously presented. But using my twofold approach, perhaps I can first value the courage it took to ask for a meeting and applaud the student’s desire to get to the bottom of what is confusing them. Saying this out loud not only puts me in the proper frame of mind but relaxes the student and breaks down that wall so they can focus on absorbing my current coaching.

The same is true when I write feedback or advice at the end of a student paper or assignment. It may be tempting to just list what needs to be fixed: too many run-on sentences, weak vocabulary, or missing conclusion. But if I start with what has been done well – what I enjoyed and appreciated in the work – my coaching will be much more valuable to the student.

When I tell parents my two pronged approach to coaching, more than one has voiced their concern: “what if there isn’t anything good in their writing? They really struggle.”

“Not to fear,” I tell them. “I can ALWAYS find something positive in student writing.”

My favorite compliments as a coach…

Very Creative!

Some students who struggle with grammar or formal writing demonstrate enormous creativity in description or word choice and perspective. Sometimes a student may conceive a clever premise for a story. All of these are things to be celebrated and nurtured as we work to build the foundational skills to accompany them.

Great effort, I can tell you worked hard on this.

Sometimes all the effort in the world is not going to produce excellent work. Skill and finesse may be lacking, but any time a student spends time and does their best, it is worth celebrating. It shows their dedication to learning and their desire to succeed…and this I can work with.

Thank you for sharing this – I can tell it means a lot to you.

Writing is a tricky thing to teach for many reasons and one of them is because it is so highly personal and subjective. Often, we are asking students to reveal a piece of their personal life or experience – and then we grade it. Wow! That’s intimidating for sure. So, when a student shares something uniquely personal and perhaps a bit vulnerable, it is important to thank them for trusting me with that experience.

Yay! I see you have really improved this piece!

Even if there remain problems or things to fix, when a student has managed to improve even one small thing, it is reason for praise and celebration. I try to be vigilant about what I have suggested in previous feedback and notice when those issues have been addressed.

Try compliments!

When you work with your own child or students and they bring you their writing to critique or proofread, try changing your mindset from quickly looking for what is wrong to noticing what is done well and celebrating that first. I promise that your words of wisdom will have greater impact following a sincere and heartfelt compliment.

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