Justin Locke

People Skills 101

The astonishing power of praise.

March 7, 2011
by Justin Locke

Are you one of those people who are fabulous at the services you provide, but feel a little awkward dealing with strangers who walk in the door seeking those services? Well, here are a few hints and tricks.
When I was a teenage wannabe musician, I studied with several famous double bass teachers. In my lessons, every single one of them, with the best of intentions, relentlessly told me every little thing that I was doing wrong. They pointed out every little mistake. They certainly meant well, but in the end, all that criticism destroyed my confidence.

Then I met a bass teacher who did nothing but praise me. No matter how I played my lessons, good or bad, he would sit in a cloud of cigarette smoke and say, “sounds beautiful.” I used to think he was the worst bass teacher in the world, but there was a method to his madness. By giving me a constant stream of praise and approval, he imparted the one thing I lacked and truly needed, which was a mustard seed’s worth of belief in myself. Once I had regained my confidence, I was able to figure out the technical stuff on my own. A year later, I was playing professionally.

So if praise is so wonderful and effective, why don’t more people do it?

Well, sadly, we live a world in which most people believe in the power of criticism.

Just one more example, I had a speaking appearance in Milwaukee last summer and the client booked me onto an airline which was unfamiliar. Out of curiosity, I Googled the airline and oh my goodness, the reviews were just appalling: rats in the gate area, drunk pilots, wings falling off the plane, the works. I was convinced that I would not survive the trip. But lo and behold, when I showed up, there weren’t any rats or drunk pilots. It was just a typical no-frills flight. Clearly, all the people who had bad experiences had voiced their complaints, but all the people who had good experiences said nothing. I sincerely doubt that anyone on my problem-free flight went to the trouble of posting a positive review. This is the dynamic everywhere. When we do it wrong, we get immediate unpleasant feedback. When we do it right, we rarely hear anything.

Dos and Don’ts

This first one is subtle, yet important: Unless you are in a manager-to-staff situation, try to avoid offering a “compliment” that is really a judgment. For example, after Yo-Yo Ma plays a recital, don’t say, “Hey, that was really good.” Instead, say something like, “Wow, I really enjoyed that.” You see how the first version is a judgmental, which can be considered as condescending and implies status that you may not really have, whereas the second implies no judgment, just personal positive reaction, hence greater connection.

Don’t compliment anything that is DNA related. It’s fine to compliment someone on their hairdo, but it’s risky complimenting someone on their hair. They have control over their hairdo, but not over their genetic sequencing. Similarly unless you know someone very well, be careful about saying “wow, you lost weight!” as this can be interpreted as though the person has been overweight.

There are two types of compliments, the sincere and the insincere. Don’t be quick to dismiss the latter.

It just so happens that I am a master of the insincere compliment. I will say all sorts of meaningless things to people, like “What a guy,” “Unbelievable,” and “You’re doing a helluva job.” I don’t really know what “a helluva job” is, but when said in the right tone (and I should mention that a friendly “I am impressed” tone is key), it always makes people smile. When I see someone stocking lettuce in the produce aisle, well, saying something positive instead of ignoring him costs me nothing and makes him feel like someone appreciates what he’s doing. And frankly, without people doing that work, we would all starve, so they ARE doing a helluva job. And you can bet, when I need this guy’s assistance next week, he is going to be much more inclined.

When it comes to sincere compliments, well, that’s personal taste. If you truly like something someone is wearing, you should say something. As my set drummer friend said, “it’s always nice to hear.” Praise sings deeply into the soul. A little dab will do. Always be mindful of other people’s boundaries. This is the heart of good manners.

Dealing With Odd Reactions

There are some people who require extra special care when you want to offer them praise. They fall into two categories:

  • People who are extremely attractive and/or extremely powerful. Unlike everyone else, these people are generally already inundated with praise, most of which, from their perspective, masks an ulterior motive. I am not saying you shouldn’t offer praise or compliments to these people; you should, as they need them as much or more than anyone else. But they have a lot of people giving them inappropriate, overly-forward comments and it’s a challenge for them to gracefully respond to nonstop ham-handed phrases from strangers. You can effectively compliment these people, but have to put more thought into it. Trick: Don’t give a standard compliment. Come up with something unusual. Demonstrate that you have given the matter some thought.

  • People who have “issues,” i.e., people who are very paranoid about anyone getting close to them. To such people, a simple compliment can be quickly mistaken as an unwanted personal/sexual advance and they may overreact, so be judicious in complimenting colleagues who you don’t know well.

Many people have a more benign kind of personal issue, such as being so starved for praise that they don’t know how to react to it. They may just freeze up. That’s OK, you have not offended them. They’re not mad at you, they’re just not used to someone being nice to them. Don’t be unhappy if they don’t thank you for the compliment immediately. Flowers need a lot of water to bloom after a drought.

How Praise Works for CPAs

When people come into your office and show you their shoebox filled with receipts and pay stubs, your first reaction may be to say, “oh my goodness, this is a terrible mess, good thing you hired me.” Well, wait a second. If you use your imagination, you can find something nice to say about their horrendous system. Come up with some little crumb of kindness that they can desperately cling to in the face of the flood of changes you’re about to suggest, such as, “It’s great that you saved all this, you wouldn’t believe how many people lose everything.” If you tell someone that they did something right, they will be much more open to instituting your suggested changes to all they did wrong. Positive input of any kind is memorable and it gives people a personal reason to want to see you again besides having a desperate need for your service.

Praise your clients, your staff and your peers. Praise is a powerful tool for managing, sales and just making the world a better place in general.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© Justin Locke