The Happiness Project

Nine Tips for Giving Memorable Praise, Not Flattery

I just finished a very engaging book, Richard Stengel’s You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery . I wish I’d had this book as a resource when I was writing my first book, Power Money Fame Sex . It’s a treasure trove of anecdotes and observations about flattery—a topic that comes up with some frequency when you’re writing about money, power, fame, and sex.

The book is history and social criticism, but at the end, Stengel includes a list called “How to flatter without getting caught.”

To put flattery in a happier context, I adapted his list to focus on giving good praise rather than flattery. Now, what’s the difference between flattery and praise? Flattery is strategic; it’s praise given for a self-serving reason. But many of the same rules apply:

1. Be specific . Vague praise doesn’t make much of an impression.

2. Find a way to praise sincerely . It’s a rare situation where you can’t identify something that you honestly find praiseworthy.

3. Never offer praise and ask for a favor in the same conversation . It makes the praise seem like a setup.

4. Don’t overpraise . Keep it credible and realistic.

5. Look for something less obvious to praise , a more obscure accomplishment or quality that a person hasn’t heard praised many times before.

6. Don’t hesitate to praise people who get a lot of praise already . I’ve noticed this myself: Even people who get constant praise—or perhaps especially people who get constant praise—crave yet more praise. Is this because praise-worthy people are often insecure? Or does getting praise lead to a need for more praise? I’m not sure, but it seems often to be the case.

7. Praise people behind their backs . The praised person usually hears about the praise, and behind-the-back praise seems more sincere than face-to-face praise.

8. Beware when a person asks for your honest opinion . This is often a clue that they’re seeking reassurance, not candor.

9. Don’t damn with faint praise . “You were so lousy when you started—you’ve really come a long way” or “You did a much better job than I expected” is not praise that will warm people’s hearts.

Because the way we feel is very much influenced by the way we act , by acting in a way that shows appreciation, discernment, and thoughtfulness, we make ourselves feel more appreciative, discerning, and thoughtful. And that boosts happiness.

Have you thought of any other good ways for giving people praise? As my mother once wisely pointed out to me, “Most people probably don’t get the appreciation they deserve.” Very true, and therefore …

… if you’re grappling with the opposite problem—of not getting enough praise yourself—check out these Five tips for dealing with feeling unappreciated . I’m a praise junkie myself, so I have tried all these strategies. With mixed success.

* Non sequitur: Today is July 8, 2009. At six seconds after 4:05 a.m. this morning, the time was 04:05:06 07-08-09. Shoot, I slept right through it.

* Lots of great discussion on the Facebook Page . Check it out!