And God saw that it was good!? Expressing your appreciation in helping conversations?

In a recent post I discussed the giving of compliments to the people who consult us. However is it possible that the praise you express towards your conversation partner might be badly received? Or might it feel wrong to give praise, even if your appreciation might be sincere?

Michael White points out that power is not divided equally in a relationship between a caregiver and the person who consults her. Seen in this context:

  • a show of appreciation may be interpreted as: ‘according to my standards, you have done well’ and ‘I find it legitimate to make such a judgment’, and
  • a caregiver who gives a compliment may be seen as being patronizing.

Question: Can we express the appreciation we feel in a way which steers clear of being patronizing, as well as a kind of: ‘Let’sl happily encourage you to do things according to my own standards’?

Option: Situate your appreciation in your experiences.

What the hell does that mean? Situating your appreciation in your experiences?

The opposite of that would be: ‘Very well done, you!’

  • = Playing God (‘And God saw that it was good’).
  • = I keep the experiences that have brought me to this appreciation out of sight.

So, what does ‘Situating my appreciation in my experiences’ mean? An example:

‘You haven’t smoked a single joint for X months now. I really respect that. I will tell you why: During the past 25 years now, I have spoken with a lot of people who have struggled with substances like alcohol and narcotic-like stuff. These conversations have taught me that it isn’t easy at all to quit such substances, not even for a couple of days or weeks. My own … (relative) had an alcohol problem. As far as I know, he never took the step you have. That’s why I feel respect for what you have done.’

What happens here?

  • Appreciation is expressed, and
  • it is placed within the context of the experiences of life of the professional.


The person who is in the client position can understand where this appreciation comes from. He may understand it (or not). He may accept it (or not). But at least we have firmly departed from the ‘and God saw it was good’ context.

Another example of situated appreciation:

A young woman explained in detail how she managed to have an open conversation with her mum. I tell her that I couldn’t imagine working up the courage to start such a conversation with my parents at her age. Which is why I had such a feeling of Wow!, and it also made me imagine all sorts of other things she might be brave enough to do.

As such, the appreciation is situated in the caregiver’s life experiences, such as memories and fantasies. Similar to the following example:

I think it’s really exciting that you said you’re going to … You know, I once followed a workshop from someone about anxiety therapy. I will never forget that workshop. That guy – Omer van den Bergh – had a bunch of little spiders with him, and he made us practice in relation to our own fears. Now, I’ve got the fantasy that if Omer were sitting here now, in this conversation, he would say: … I have learnt from him … Which is why I think this is so exciting.


So this is what I mean with ‘situating your appreciation in your experiences’.  We can express our appreciation without playing god. And this allows our conversation partners to experience a greater level of freedom in how to relate to that expression of appreciation.

You can now also ask your conversation partner how he/she evaluates the act or initiative, and why.

Then the central issue is: the appreciation of the person in the client position, based on what he or she finds precious.


Johan van de Putte

P.S. As far as I am concerned, this has nothing to do what-so-ever with ‘(positive) reinforcement’. The word ‘reinforcement’ is usually used in the following context: ‘what can the caregiver do to gain control over the behavior of people?’ I.e.: ‘how can I make sure that the person does more X by praising him when he does X? Regardless of the question what he or she might want of finds important.’

Firstly: you cannot know whether a behaviour is being ‘positively reinforced’ when you praise someone for it. This will have to show from an increase in the frequency in this behaviour.

Secondly: if you praise someone after he has talked about something he has done, are you reinforcing the ‘talking about’ or the action which he is talking about?

Thirdly: I am concerned with conducting conversations that the person experiences as helping. Not to bring his behaviour under my control.


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