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

cheat sheet: 6 types of questions for an empowering conversation

In 2008, in Adelaide, I heard David Epston tell a story about a first interview with a family. david-epstonThe family struggled with some problems. Because the night before he had hardly slept, David suggested that in their first meeting they would not discuss these problems. They would do that the next day, in a second interview. So in the first conversation they only talked about sparkling aspects of their identity, of their relationships, of their lives. After this conversation the family found a second meeting no longer necessary. They felt launched. Speaking of sparkling aspects of people’s lives: this can be ‘launching’. E.g. you can discuss what your conversation partner likes to do, is good at, finds precious, and who is precious to her or him. This can be empowering for all parties involved.
So here you have a little cheat sheet with some suggestions for questions for an empowering conversation.

The starting point I chose is: you picked up something that your conversation partner likes to do: cycling, cooking, walking, doing crosswords, playing music, eating, sleeping, playing drums, watching TV, traveling…


Starting point

You identify something your conversation partner likes to do: it could be something like cycling, cooking, walking, doing crosswords, playing music, eating, sleeping, playing drums, watching TV, traveling…


Step 1

Leave your personal curiosity free rein and ask questions to the specifics:

  • what kind of…? (walking, painting, running, dancing, …)
  • how often…?
  • or whom…?
  • alone or with others?…
  • ..

Suggestion: Let go of the idea that “open questions” are better than closed ones. Go with your genuine and personal curiosity.


Step 2

Now explore aspects such as:


  • Effects of the activity on the person: What does … bring to your life?

What does spending time with your mates bring to your life?

This brings people to express aspects they value: e.g. freedom, my imagination is stirred, the connections with my mates, …

And this brings you to the following aspect:


  • Values: Is … (that kind of joy, your imagination, …) important to you?
    • Can you tell me more about that?
    • Why is this important to you?skills-image

This sense of connection you mention, is that something you treasure? How important is that to you? Can you tell me a little bit about why you cherish this the way you do?

  • Skills: What kind of skills does a person need to have or develop in order to … (run, dance salsa, appreciate French cuisine, …)?

So what would you say a person needs to be able to do in order to play the drums and enjoy it the way you do?

  • Social and relational history questions about values:
    • How did you learn to appreciate this? (e.g. freedom, creativity, that kind of joy, …)
    • When did you get to know the taste of …?
    • When did you start appreciating …?
    • Who taught you this?
    • Are there any people who might have inspired you in this learning to value …?


  • Social and relational history questions about skills:
    • How did you learn this?
    • What people have played a role in your learning to …? As a teacher or an inspiration? Or because they encouraged you?


  • Questions about significant others (with whom there is/was a warm relationship:
    • What does… appreciate about you … (the activity that the person likes to do)?
    • How does that impact on her life?


Have fun experimenting (even in a first meeting) with these questions and find out in what way this can be empowering!


Have great day!
Johan Van de Putte