The Difference Between Compliments and Appreciation

by Karl Smerecnik on October 14, 2011

October is Appreciate Others Month here at Stepping Into Wonder and I am dedicating each post this month to the topic of appreciation. For many years, the primary way I shared my appreciation for others was through compliments. I was taught how to do this from a young age. This is something I have also observed as a social norm in most Western cultures. I am finding though that there is a better way to share my appreciation.

I have learned through Nonviolent Communication that there is an important difference between compliments and appreciation: by specifically communicating my appreciation of how I feel, I can more fully express my care and enjoyment of the other and often increase a sense of connection. I have come to understand that compliments are actually a form of evaluation and labeling of the other and have a higher possibility of creating disconnection. I’ll explain.

Why Not to Use Compliments

The intent behind compliments is beautiful and I believe the intent can greatly contribute to others. Receiving appreciation is something we all enjoy. But I am concerned that compliments do not fully express our appreciation.

Think for a moment about what you would categorize the following statements as: “you’re selfish,” “he is a jerk,” “she is lazy,” “they are close-minded.”

Would you use such terms as judgments, criticisms, labels, evaluations or assessments to describe these statements? Those are terms I would use. I’m guessing no one enjoys being called “selfish” and I’m guessing it doesn’t help you feel more connected to the person that communicated that to you.

Why is this? Is it because it was a “negative” term? Perhaps, though I think there is something deeper going on here. I believe anytime someone uses language to assess or label, whether “positive” or “negative,” it has a greater possibility of creating disconnection. Though we have become accustom to receiving and giving compliments, I believe it is a limited means of communicating appreciation.

“Once you label me, you negate me.” – Soren Kierkegaard

You may be asking, how is it disconnecting to be labeled as “friendly,” “talented,” or “loving?” Isn’t it nice to be those things?

Yes, it certainly is. But my concern is that when someone compliments you, or labels you in this way, it’s not so much an open and honest expression of how they are experiencing you but rather an assessment of who you are. Telling someone who they  are is a subtle form of control (just think of the way labels like “terrorist,” ‘criminal,” “heretic” “sinful” or “bad” have been used to justify many violent acts).

Though the intent of compliments is well-meaning , it lacks the richness of fully and authentically sharing appreciation from one’s own experience of the other. We need to learn a new language of appreciation.

How to Fully Share Our Appreciation

By sharing our appreciation using “I” statements instead of “you” statements (labels), it more fully expresses the joy of our experience of another person. The gift of appreciation can be much richer when we express what it is about the other person’s actions that brings us a sense of aliveness and enjoyment.

See if you notice a difference in these statements:

You are a such a talented singer” vs “I really enjoyed your singing.”

You are so smart” vs “I really appreciate the way you come up with those solutions.”

You are a such a great communicator” vs “I really experience a lot of sincerity and kindness from the way you communicate.”

Did you notice a difference?

Additionally, when we communicate our specific needs that were met, it can more fully express the gift of appreciation. For example:

“I really enjoyed your singing, I experienced a great sense of beauty and comfort from it.”

“I really appreciate the way you come up with those solutions, it brings me inspiration and creativity.”

The gift of appreciation can be shared with a greater depth and be more connecting when we express our own experience of the other instead of labeling them and when we share what needs it meets for us.

Check in next week for How to Receive Appreciation and join Appreciate Others Month on Facebook.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Marguerite October 30, 2011 at 23:42

Hm. Interesting distinction. Although I think that you should give people the benefit of the doubt when they compliment you and trust that they mean what they say – because when you say something you mean it as well. I think that the most important thing about true compliment or appreciation is that they be backed up by action. Actions have to follow words in order for the intention to be truly manifested and felt.


stepintowonder October 31, 2011 at 01:07

Absolutely, I completely agree that it is valuable to empathize with the other person's intent. The post was primarily intended to be focused on how we offer appreciation to others. I also enjoy your emphasis on the importance of actions.


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