The Power of Really Specific Compliments

“Life and death are in the power of the tongue and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:21


When I was in my first year at Uni I started playing bass in my local church. It was the first time I had really played bass in public, and during the transition from playing along to Chili Pepper CDs in my bedroom to actually having to play with other musicians I learned that my enthusiasm far outweighed my musical ability. To be fair I’d still say that’s true. But back then I was a pretty lousy player with no concept of restraint or playing as part of a band. I firmly believed that no line was complete without a ridiculous bass fill and that the best way to help people connect with Jesus was to show them just how many bass slides I could fit in any one hymn.

2013 Orion Music + More Festival - Day 1
I modelled every aspect of my playing after this man, including the facial expressions

Despite my… mixed abilities one of the band leaders at church invited me one day to play with him and the band at New Wine, a weeklong Christian festival taking place that summer. We’d be playing at the youth events every day, to around 800 kids. It was by far the biggest gig I’d ever had, and I was totally psyched for it.

So, all year I practiced my ass off to the point where I knew every song on the list note for note. Then when the week came I played with the band and had an absolute blast leading hundreds of rowdy kids in worship. I even managed to learn quite a few new songs on the fly. Midway through the week during one of the staff meetings we were asked to sit in a circle and go round saying something positive about the person to our right while we took communion. The guy to my left, a sick guitarist and generally great fellow called Harrison, turned to me and said “Paul, you are a very peaceful man. And a surprisingly fast learner!”

Both of those things really resonated with me. I had been worried the whole week that my shyness and awkwardness had meant that no one else in the band really liked me, so to hear Harrison call me “peaceful” was awesome. I’m not shy, I’m peaceful– chilled out, a calming influence, a voice of reason. Or something like that. And a fast learner too. It was weird, because people had been telling me all week that I was smashing it on bass, but for this guy who really knew what he was talking about to give me such a specific compliment, it really made me stop and think “…yeah, I am, aren’t I?”

This is by no means the most idiotic photo of me rocking out

From that point on “quick learner” has always been a trait that I see and admire in myself. And it’s proven true. I’ve always had a knack for picking up a new song very quickly and can usually be playing along to a track before it’s finished. And no, that’s not because all worship songs use the same chord progression. It’s not just because of that. It’s true in non-music settings as well; during training in my various jobs I was always one of the first to grasp new ideas and would often end up explaining them to the rest of the team. And whenever I went for a job interview and was asked to describe by strengths I was invariable start with “well, I’ definitely a fast learner. I have no trouble picking things up quickly.”

A Winning Formula

A few years later I had a part time job as a maths tutor teaching this 12 year old kid called Jamie about algebra. Obviously I’ve changed his name as he has no idea I’m writing this, but here’s his full name and address anyway. Jamie had both dyslexia and dyscalcula and had clearly been struggling with maths for a long time. When I started he… wasn’t very good, and clearly knew it. And so he never had much motivation to try. But over the course of about six months worth of weekly sessions we did make a bit of progress. So when it was nearly time for him to sit his exams he off-handedly expressed that he was probably going to fail miserably. To which I replied “I dunno, man, you’re way better at this than when we started.”

He looked at me with wide eyes and said “…really?”

As I showed him just how much more difficult the questions were that he was able to answer compared to just a few months ago it was brilliant to watch the expression on his face. The idea that he was getting better had simply never dawned on him. But now that I had pointed it out, he could see that it was true.

Above: maths

And so next week, in our final session before I moved to Bradford, we were going through some question or other (probably circle theory or some such crap) and he took a stab at answering it. When I told him he got it right, he said “that’s right, because I’m a mathematician now, aren’t I?” very quietly, to himself, as though simply expressing what colour his pen was. I think I welled up. That little throwaway comment I had made had really sunk in and had clearly changed his entire outlook on maths.

The Amazing Power of Being Quite Nice to People

In both of these stories someone gives a very small but specific, tailored compliment that has a big impact on the recipient. When Harrison told me I was a quick learner on bass I saw that there was real truth in it, took it to heart and carried it round with me from that point on. When I told Jamie he was getting much better at maths he saw that I was right, and that maybe he could pass his exams after all.

That’s the power of really specific compliments. The recipient can take them and form them into part of their core identity– that deep part of yourself that’s so important in how you interact with the world. And once it’s there it has a big impact on your experiences from that point on. Knowing that I’m a fast learner means I approach new situations with confidence and expect to get to grips with things quickly, meaning that while other more anxious people flounder I race ahead. Knowing that his maths skills were improving gave Jamie the confidence to throw himself into his studies and try his best to learn more and more. So it creates that all-important positive cycle of reality conforming to your expectations. It ends up being true because you believe it.

How to Give Really Good Compliments

In these examples it didn’t exactly cost Harrison or myself very much to give those little words of affirmation that ended up having such a big impact. But I think it’s still worth being deliberate about using really specific, thoughtful compliments to brighten people’s days and bring out things you see in them that they might not see otherwise. Here are a few tips for giving great compliments.

  • They have to be true, or at least have some grounding in reality. If Harrison had told me that I was the life and soul of the whole festival instead of telling me I was peaceful I would’ve thought “am I bollocks!” This should be obvious but if you’re gonna tell someone something nice then it helps if it’s actually true.
  • They can’t be too exaggerated. Otherwise you get what’s called a “reality gap” and the person ends up rejecting what you say. If I had told Jamie that he was a mathematical genius and was clearly going to pass his exams, no sweat, he would’ve looked at the evidence and concluded that I was just being nice. It was much easier for his mind to accept the idea that he was getting better. A more modest compliment is sometimes much more effective.
  • Ideally they should come from a place of knowledge or authority. Harrison’s words meant more to me because he was a sick guitarist who I really respected. My words meant something to Jamie because I was literally his sodding teacher. This one isn’t essential but it helps your words to sink in a bit more if you clearly know what you’re talking about.
  • They should be as specific as you can make them. Just a generic “you’re so awesome” is nice but is unlikely to have as much lasting impact on someone’s core beliefs. The more specific, the more the recipient sees the thought that has gone into it, and the more it means.
  • If you can make it personal then that helps too. As in, it should speak to something that really matters to the recipient. Bass playing matters a great deal to me. Doing well at school mattered to Jamie. Hearing things that we value in ourselves affirmed by others is a wonderful thing.


This post has nothing to do with Arnie. If you were brought here by the Arnie tags and the picture, you’ve been absolutely had.


A Complimentary Habit

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone did this for each other? How much better would we all feel about ourselves! So try it! Say something really specifically positive to someone you like. Watch their surprise turn to recognition turn to pride. I do this to Liz every so often. I’ll literally just walk into the room where she’s making paper beads or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix and say “your chocolate orange muffins are incredible and you have a wonderful ability to make people feel welcomed and valued” and then walk out.

You don’t have to do it quite like that (in fact I suggest you don’t) but you get the idea. It might be a tad uncomfortable at first but people notice when you step out and say something powerfully affirming precisely because of the unusualness of it. It’s not the “done thing” in our society but let’s change that and make really random, laser targeted compliments part of our daily discourse and see how far the effects can reach!


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