Here it is, simple and real:

When you say something good to someone, DO NOT put in anything bad.

That’s it. That simple. When you’re saying good things, keep them good! That’s all. How simple is that?

It frustrates me to no end to hear…
… in the office, “What you did was superb, wonderful, but I just wish you did it all the time.”
…as a couple, “You really matter so much to me, and what you did by coming to my graduation instead of to that conference really matters. I don’t even mind it so much that you’ve missed my last two chamber performances. Thank you.”
…to a friend, “That outfit looks really good on you. And much better than that thing you wore to the charity gala, remember that?”
…with children, “You make me really proud of you. Two A+’s in one week, and a great note from your math teacher! You really should just straighten up in your room a little more.”

There is no high! There is no benefit when you mix the message. What am I saying? That the messenger should be killed? Well, no, ok, I’m not going that far. I’m just pointing out that good combined with bad is semi-good/semi-bad. Here’s the math:
1) good + good + good = good (three pieces of great news or three compliments… together the result is good)
2) bad + bad + bad = bad (three insults…together make a large insult)
3) good + bad = bad (good and bad… together that’s bad)
4) good + good + good + good + good + good + good + bad = bad (n number of good things and one bad thing … together the result is somewhat bad)

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because the brain remembers bad things more easily than it remembers good things. In the fourth example, the brain overweights the bad. That’s just how brains work. It has to do with being on the lookout for danger in the caveman era. If you don’t see the dangerous animal once, you’re gone. If you don’t always observe the butterflies in the sunshine, you’re still ok, you live.

It kills the message. That’s the biggest reason it makes me so upset. And it’s easy to slip into it.

People are not by nature comfortable giving compliments. People are not by nature comfortable saying things that make themselves vulnerable. People are by nature not comfortable receiving compliments: speak to many a performer and ask her about the time when she learned to say a simple “thank you” in answer to a compliment. Giving and receiving real compliments is sometimes difficult. We don’t know exactly how to do it. We have a lot of things running through our heads. The performer who was complimented on her vocal range can only remember that one E that she sang a little flat. But she needs to ignore than when she smiles and says “thank you.” Because she is getting complimented on something else – on that person’s enjoyed experience of listening to her. It is almost that the person is complimenting himself and his own ear when he compliments her work. She can only respond to his eperience of her work, and if he enjoyed it and is complimenting that already-enjoyed performance, then what else could make anywhere as much sense for a reply as “thank you”?

How is it easy to slip into throwing a bad into the goods? Simple. If a person makes a joke to make delivering the message simpler. If a person wants to make the message lighter, not as serious. If the person wants to “give both sides of the issue.” When complimenting, nobody needs to hear both sides. You are not the scales of justice. You are just one person, saying something to another person. Saying something that uplifts that person. That something may also make you potentially more vulnerable. Delivering a joke in there, such as “you’re an incredibly talented piano player, but you’re no Marilyn Monroe” (even if the woman is a knockout and that joke is obviously not true) – it’s just not necessary. It just dilutes your message. Making the message lighter, such as “you’re a great organizer and project manager of this project at work, but don’t let it go to your head” – it’s just not necessary. It just dilutes the power of the original message. Giving both sides of the issue, such as “You’re absolutely gorgeous in that dress, but the fit around your hips is not as flattering as around your stomach” – it’s just not necessary. Beyond diluting your message, it can completely wipe out the impact of your message.

There are great times to throw in silly jokes. When people are having fun, teasing each other – at work, in the family, with friends. It is absolutely great to tease about how good or bad someone is at something. It’s fun to be teased. It’s fun to do the teasing.

But those aren’t compliments. Those are training wheels for the tigers of life. Those are fun signs of pleasant affection. Those aren’t the real, deep, to-the-core compliments that comments about YOU or YOUR TALENTS or YOUR HABITS or YOUR CHARACTER can be.

When people reminisce about “the best things that anyone’s ever said to me,” will they be able to include your comment? They will if it is pure and clean. If it’s only that comment about their strengths and their greatnesses, and not a mucked up quadmire of grayness. Give the compliment in black and white. Give the compliment in bright colors, without diluting the colors to gray.

Take-away: When you say something good to someone, DO NOT put in anything bad.


One Comment

  1. Dave
    Posted Tuesday May 16, 2006 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    This is a FABULOUS post…I will keep this in mind!!!