Affirming in helping conversations: deliberate compliments

Conversations have a fleeting quality. And that goes for helping conversations too. Just ask your interlocutor a week later what he or she remembers of your last conversation. So what are ways to affirm important initiatives or aspects of the identity of your interlocutor? So that we might rescue these from this fleetiness? Here are some options:

  • You can give a compliment for something you appreciate.
  • You can express what strikes a chord for you and why.
  • You can ask your interlocutor how she evaluates an initiative and why.
  • You can be respectful of the words and phrases your interlocutor is using.
  • You can create a document around words/ideas/initiatives/experiences of your interlocutor.
  • You can come back to something your interlocutor has said before.


In this post I will give some tips on giving compliments in helping conversations.

So what is the context? The person who consults you says something that makes you feel excited. Or something that moves you. Or something that triggers your appreciation. You identify a skill, or a quality. You realize that he has taken a difficult step. You suddenly hear of a dream that he hasn’t given up on, which he could have easily.

Will you give a compliment?


Compliments => quick therapy?

Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg: pioneers of the solution-focused approach. Steve de Shazer & Insoo Kim BergThey were deliberately generous with compliments, during a conversation as well as in their feedback at the end of it. Why? Their idea was:

The more compliments in helping conversations => the sooner people reach the conclusion: “things are is actually well enough; I don’t think I need therapy anymore.”


They were deliberate in the formulation of compliments, i.e. about:

  • a commitment
  • putting in effort
  • the use of a skill
  • an idea
  • a knowledge or insight
  • holding on to a goal or hope
  • acting in the face of uncertainty
  • wanting something
  • trying something
  • taking serious an intuition or feeling
  • holding on to something
  • an achievement
  • having an intention
  • holding on to an intention
  • asking questions about something
  • entering into a partnership
  • looking up someone
  • asking for advice
  • following a piece of advice
  • not following a piece of advice
  • daring to do something that is uncommon


Insoo and Steve (life partners) each had their style, also with giving compliments.

Insoo: enthusiastic and warm and all-over-the-place.

Steve: restrained (“good”) and sometimes – totally unexpected – shaking the hand of his conversation partner.

Witnessing them made you realize:

Just give your compliments the way you feel comfortable with.


The difference between direct and indirect compliments

Another thing they taught us: the difference between direct and indirect compliments.

Direct compliments: this is the usual in-your-face type of expressing appreciation, such as:

  • You have done very well!
  • I find it extraordinary that you…
  • Super!
  • Wow!


Indirect compliments: your interlocutor experiences your appreciation, without you being explicit about it. For example, you could ask questions such as:

  • How did you know this was the way to proceed?
  • How did you know that was a good idea?
  • How/when/from who did you learn this?
  • From whom did you get (this quality)?
  • Are there more people in your family with (this quality)?
  • Why is it that you have such a good relationship with your ((girl)friend, children, colleague,father, …)?
  • Why is it that X likes you?
  • How have you managed to stick with your beliefs all this time?
  • How have you managed to hold on to this all this time?
  • What qualities does one need to be able to [X] (i.e. play the piano, play hockey, weld, be a mother, …)?
  • How difficult was this? If it was hard:
    • How did you manage to do it?
    • What qualities and skills did you to bring into the game
    • Where did you get the courage/strength/confidence to …

So when should you give a direct compliment, and when an indirect one?

According to Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg

direct compliments do sometimes feel unpleasant.

Insoo once mentioned that their daughter, when she was 16, rejected direct compliments. She only allowed indirect compliments.

To be honest: I often feel uncomfortable when given a direct compliment. And how many times have I heard someone say: “when I get a compliment, I think: what is behind this? What does he want from me?”

So be aware:

Indirect compliments are sometimes easier to digest and trigger less resistance.


If your compliment is being rejected

And here is some advice I heard from Luc Isebaert (a psychiatrist who did a lot to give solution-focused therapy a platform in Belgium):

If your conversation partner rejects your compliment (“oh, that’s not true, it wasn’t a big deal, everyone would…), don’t argue.

Say for example: “You don’t have to agree, that’s just what I think.” And just continue with the conversation. That makes sense, right? If you would enter into a discussion, what would be the result? Probably the result of most discussions: the two parties ending up even more convinced of their own right.

What about you? How do you go about giving compliments?

Have great day!
Johan Van de Putte

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Johan Van de Putte

Johan Van de Putte is a psychologist with 25 years of experience in holding helping conversations. His focus goes out to molding conversations that are identity-friendly, that explore what sparkles in the life and the person of your conversation partner, and that maintain an awareness of the unequal distribution of power in the therapeutic relationship.

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