How to give and take a really great compliment

When I was in third grade, my teacher taught me that we had to use meaningful adjectives, and certain words were no longer allowed. Generic, vague words like nice, good, and fun were no removed from our lexicon. We had to find words that were more descriptive and rich.

I’d like to invite you to consider that you might want to try giving compliments in this way. Try to avoid the basic platitudes you might give the important people in your life. Don’t tell them they’re a good friend, or a helpful spouse(though that’s not bad), tell them how their specific actions make you feel. You can use the format “when you____________,” I feel _____________.“

Here are some examples: "when you give me a hug, I feel safe and protected,” or “the way you listen to me makes me feel like you really care about me,” or “when I think about how hard you work to take care of our family, it makes me feel grateful.”

We all hunger to be noticed and appreciated, and these types of compliments show that you’ve really paid attention to them, and that you value their specific gifts.

Accepting a compliment can also be challenging for some people. When someone says something kind, we might be tempted to deflect it (“No, you’re the pretty one”) deny it (“I’m not really smart, I just got lucky”) or try to minimize it (”oh it’s no big deal"). Let me make this formula very straightforward. Your only job is to appreciate that they said something kind to you. You don’t have to agree or endorse their opinions, just be appreciative that they thought something nice about you and then cared enough to tell you so.  And don’t be tempted to share the compliment either (“I feel the same way about you!” Or “you’re a really caring friend also!”). 

So you can say “thank you,” or “I appreciate it,” or anything else simple like that, but no more. If you’d like to return the compliment, say your thank you, pause, and then come up with a compliment of your own. It will likely be at least a little different, and will be received with so much more warmth and appreciation than if you just piggyback onto their compliment with a “you too!”

It can be really fun to figure out what you like best about the important people in your life, and it can definitely lead to a positively cascading effect, where you share your appreciation, which may lead the other person to share theirs, and everyone starts to feel more appreciated, which leads to more expressed gratitude and generalized good feeling It also feels so much better to focus on what gives you pleasure than what disappoints you.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

For difficult conversations, set your goals and intentions

I think a lot about how to have conversations about difficult topics.  Many people can do it within my office, but it can be really hard to do in the real world.

Here’s a quick tip that can be useful.  Before you enter into the conversation, think about what your goal is for the conversation. Is it to share your feelings? Is it to ask your conversation partner to make a change? Is it build intimacy? We often enter into conversation with unclear and tangled ideas of our purpose, which can really increase the potential for unhelpful conversations.

Once you’ve gotten clear about your goal for the conversation, then set an intention for how you want to behave in this conversation.  Would you like to be brave? Honest? A good listener? Compassionate? Pick one or two descriptions of how you want to be in this conversation. You might even choose to write it down somewhere you can see it while you are in the conversation, so you can remind yourself if you drift away from your plan.

Then, once you have set your goals and intentions, you might choose to share them with your conversation partner.  Here’s an example of how you might do it:


You: “I’d like to talk with you about our fight last night.  I’d like to share with you what it felt like for me-would you be open to listening to me? Is now an ok time, or should we pick a different time?”

(partner says ok)

You: “Thanks. I appreciate it.  I want you to know that I’m going to do my best to be forthright, but also to be kind in how I say things. I probably won’t be perfect, but I just want to let you know that’s what I’m trying to do. Is there anything I can support you in how you want to be in this conversation?”


My way of speaking may not be your style, so be sure to use your own language and style of speaking. The important thing is to be clear on what you’re trying to do before you open the conversation. When you have a framework for the conversation, I think you’ll be surprised at how much cleaner and more productive the conversation can be.

The importance of parking lot conversations

As many of you know, I practice psychotherapy with couples. One theme that I’ve been thinking about recently is how many of my clients have productive, painful, and fearless conversations together in my office, but find it hard to do so outside my office. In the safety of my office, they are respectful and brave, and show impressive capacity to stay with very difficult conversations. Often, the conversations are not quite finished when our session is over, and I encourage them to try to continue the conversation sometime before our next session. After all,  I want my clients to be able to talk through their challenges together without me, and I know that’s what they want too. And yet, these conversations often don’t happen unless they’re in my office.

There are lots of good reasons for this phenomenon, of course. It’s scary to talk about contentious topics, and having an impartial and trained mediator can make it feel safer. Life can get busy, and there often seems like there’s no good time when both parties can sit down together and calmly discuss hard issues. 

What I have noticed is that occasionally, my clients will stand outside my office door, in front of the building, or in front of their cars, continuing their conversations, following our sessions.  They’re able to hold on to the feelings they’re having, they’re able to keep going with the risk-taking and the trust. And even if it’s just for a few minutes, it’s such an important building block to having more and more of these kinds of interactions.

So if you’re in couple’s therapy with me, or with someone else, let me make this humble suggestion.  If you can’t have a big conversation outside of therapy, that’s ok.  You might have good reasons that you’re just not quite ready yet. Building new habits can be hard, so take the opportunity given by your therapy session and practice the skill of taking the conversation out of the therapy room, and bring it with you outside the door, or in the parking lot. Even just a few minutes spent practicing honesty and vulnerability and respectful conversation with your partner will build the capacity to continue having more and more of them.

You might be surprised to find out that the parking lot conversations will build in length or in depth, or that you might have similar, brief conversations the night before therapy or other times throughout your week. Like anything else, new skills take practice, and the best way to do it is little by little, building confidence and experience. 

So, give it a try. Before leaving your couple’s session and rushing off to your next commitment, take a few minutes and keep talking to your partner. Tell your partner the truth, or ask your partner what he or she still wants to say to you. Try to talk and listen (even if just for a few minutes–you can even set a timer for five or ten minutes, so you know it won’t drag on forever) with respect and honesty, and let me know how it goes!

Try to learn something new about your partner

 recently heard a statistic that suggested that approximately 90% of the thoughts we have are not new–in other words, we’re re-thinking the same old thoughts most of the time.  We tell ourselves familiar stories about ourselves or others, ruminate on the same old hurts, wishes or worries, obsess about our to do list, but are we thinking something new that might be useful?

Often, we don’t even realize that we’re running through the same thoughts (about ourselves, about others). It might be your to do list, your regrets about the past, your fantasies or fears regarding the future, your disappointments in how others have behaved, but it’s likely that you have some thoughts and beliefs that run through your head regularly.

One of the most useful gifts that therapy can provide is to help people have new thoughts about their struggles. By asking thoughtful questions and creating an open, exploratory attitude together, we can begin to look at things in a different way, which may lead to different thoughts or understandings, which can than lead to different behaviors or feelings in response to the same experiences. 

Similarly, in relationships, we often have old thoughts about the other person: what their motivations might be, how they feel about us, how important we are to them, etc. These beliefs are often generalized, not flattering, and without nuance. In addition, these beliefs are sometimes inaccurate. One of the most useful things we can do in relationship is to check out those beliefs. We do this a lot in couples’ therapy, and I’ve found it to be such a useful process that I want to share some of the steps with you, in case you want to try them home.

I’ll try to show you how it would work with examples, but of course, each couple is different, and my style of language may not match yours. Try to make it as authentic and real as possible, and use this process as a framework, not a literal script.

As our example, let’s say you have a belief that your spouse doesn’t care about your needs.  You might be able to cite copious evidence to that effect. But have you checked it out? You might find out something that surprises you.

Before you ask, it’s important to ask in a way that opens up dialogue and exploration, which is hard to do when we feel hurt or judged or angry.  Here are some guidelines to help you communicate when emotion might be high:

1. Name the behavior as though you were an unbiased observer.  Do not add any inferences about the reasons or motivations behind the behavior.

Example “It seems like you’re often late coming home from work, even on nights when I have to go out.”

2. Describe the feelings that you have as a result. Do not tell them what you think they are feeling. Do not use it as a back-door way to insult them- “I feel like you are a jerk” is not a feeling. 

Example: “I feel frustrated and angry when I have to be late for my engagements when you are late coming home.”

3. Open up to them with curiosity and openness to their experience of the situation. It can be really hard to offer this opening when you don’t feel open, but see if you can take a deep breath and try. 

Examples:  “I wonder what your side of the story is?” “What’s going on for you on those nights?”

You might notice that I didn’t suggest anything related to problem solving here.  Most of my clients are very smart and thoughtful people–when the problem is clear, the solutions typically come easily. It’s tempting to try to rush to solutions, but the place where real change and progress can happen is in understanding each other. 

Take your time.  I’ll say that again, because it’s so important. Take your time.  When you partner shares his or her feelings, listen carefully. Your job at this moment is to try to understand his or her point of view. You will have your turn to present your responses later, but for now, you are just trying to really understand his or her perspective.  We can assume that very few people wake up in the morning thinking, “I wonder how I can hurt and shame those around me,” so let’s find out what is going on for your partner.

Once you’ve heard your partner’s point of view, try to say it back to him or her, to confirm understanding. If you’re not sure, you can ask clarifying questionsonly. Example: “I’m not sure if I have it all–I understood that you said that you find coming home to the noise and mess stressful, but I think you also said something about your fears about how I might be when you got home.  Can you say more about that?”

Then, once you think you really understand, try to state your understanding as clearly and non-defensively as possible. Example: “I think you said you’re feeling really stressed out at work, and you feel so overwhelmed by the pressure there that you can’t think about anything else. Did I get it?” 

As a final step, if you can, try to imagine what your partner is going through. What would you feel like in your partner’s situation? What might he or she be feeling right now? You can add that to your communications if it’s possible. Example: “Wow, so if I were in your shoes, I think I’d be feeling pressured and overwhelmed. That must be so hard.”

My clients tell me that they are often very surprised to learn what is going on for their partners-understanding the real feelings behind the behavior can generate empathy and compassion and decrease hurt and anger. The client who has been listened to often learns something new about him or herself, and also usually feels a new connection to the partner who has been listening and showing interest and care.

Then, and only then, is the opportunity for the listener to respond. You might find that all the things you had been saving up to say don’t feel quite as important any more. You might find that you have something different than you planned to say, so try to be as open and curious with your own thoughts as you have been with your partner.

If you’re able to follow these steps, I think you might be delightedly surprised at the new and different conversations and understandings that may emerge. Putting your defenses and strongly held perceptions to the side can be really hard-doing something new is usually hard. But if thinking the old thoughts and beliefs hasn’t yielded the outcome you like, try to discover something new, and see how that changes things.

And as always, let me know how it goes!