• S.E. Burr

Speaking Kindly About People Behind Their Backs (and to their faces.)

I've been the beneficiary lately of a few compliments that have touched me and have helped me to keep going. I don't mean to toot my own horn by sharing these with you. I wouldn't normally have so many to share. For whatever reason, for the last few weeks I feel like I've been going through a time of abundance with compliments, but there have been plenty of times of drought, believe me. I want to look at these recent compliments and why they moved me so powerfully in order to learn how to give powerful compliments to others.

The first was over the holidays. As often happens when I'm around people I care about but don't see very often, I worried that I might have accidentally offended someone. When I talked to another relative about my concern, they said, "Don't worry about it. I don't think he misinterpreted you. I've talked to him before about how hard you try not to be a jerk about that issue." (Something we have a difference of opinion about.) My relative went on, "That's all we can ask of each other--that we try not to be jerks about things." I agree with the sentiment, and it feels good to have my efforts to not be a jerk recognized. This compliment was powerful, in part, because it wasn't meant as a compliment. Someone said nice things about me in a conversation I wasn't present for. That gives it an extra honesty endorsement. If you're trying to make someone feel good about themselves, saying nice things about them when they're not there is probably not your go-to move; they may never here about it, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

The second was when a friend told me that my example in continuing to write and pursue my artistic goals is inspiring to him and makes him want to get back into doing his own art. I've been writing a long time and I know so many authors who have been so much more successful than me. I've so often felt like my writing didn't matter to anyone but me. This week I listened to "The 2017 Author Pep Talk" by Bryan Cohen. I highly recommend it. He talked about how discouraging it can be to compare ourselves with people who are more successful than us. He suggested that instead we compare down, that we compare ourselves with people who aren't doing as well as us. If you look out on the street and pick 50 random people, chances are that only a few are seriously engaged in any kind of artistic endeavor and none are authors. I think "compare down" can sound a little condescending but I knew what he meant. I really, really appreciate knowing that someone looks up to me as a writer in some small way.

The third happened when, at a meeting, I made some quip about my eternally childlike voice and how it might cause people to take me less seriously. An acquaintance who's older, more successful, and higher up in the organization than me, pulled me aside afterward and told me that he appreciated the things I'd said that day and that he thought people listened to me, that I came across as thoughtful, and that when I spoke the room fell quiet because people were listening. What he said meant a lot to me because he's someone I respect, he went out of his way to say it, and, to be honest, I probably have some insecurity about my voice. Also I knew he meant what he said because he had no vested interest in flattering me.

So what do these compliments teach me?

First, I suppose the most important thing about writing this post for me was acknowledging the impact these three peoples' words have had on me. Our words are powerful, to help and also to harm. We should be thoughtful when talking about someone who isn't present. We should be kind.

Second, thanking someone for the positive influence they've had on us is a powerful type of compliment and one I'm going to try to use more often.

Finally, just because we don't know someone well doesn't mean that our opinions don't matter to them. My lack of bias in your favor could give any encouraging words I say to you more weight.

What do you think about compliments and how to give them? What makes them powerful? What makes them weak?

Here are some of my books (You can get Goblin Fruit for free):

The Everything Puzzle

A Couple Previous Podcasts:

The Power of Minor Influences

On Purpose

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