The Birthday Compliment

August 16, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

We have a tradition in our house where on your birthday and before we light the candles, everyone takes a turn to say something they appreciated about you that year. When we started this a decade ago, I would get five-year-old compliments like, “I like how you’re my dad” or “You’re nice.”

This year all my kids are now teenagers, and the quality of appreciation has gone through the roof. I won’t rehash what they said, but all four kids and my wife provided very specific and kind examples of gratitude. These birthday compliments were words they probably think about, but rarely verbalize.

The result was a gift that was better than any cake or wrapped present. It was genuine and heartfelt gratitude with specific examples directed at someone loved and respected.

Effective Praise

The Army calls this Effective Praise in their Master Resiliency Training. Based on the work of psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck specializing in motivation, personality, and social development, this theory is how praise and criticism are opportunities to shape behavior, enhance motivation, and build optimism and resilience.

However, most of us fail to use praise and compliments effectively. In our hectic lives we often forget to recognize the accomplishments of others. While my family takes one day to celebrate someone’s achievements, I’m not as good on the other 364 days of the year to verbalize my appreciation for my family.

And when we do take time to provide appreciation, we often do it in a way that is distracted or not from the heart. Dr. Dweck calls this Passive Constructive Responding. I find myself doing this often to people I briefly pass at work. I’ll chat for a few minutes and close with a “Thanks for what you do!”

While that’s nice to recognize them for something, I’m just proving I have no real knowledge of what they do, just that they do something. It’s the equivalent of my five-year-old son thanking me for being a dad. There’s nothing tangible to that compliment. It’s a passive response, and the conversation fizzles out.

Active Constructive Response

A better way is through Active Constructive Response. The best class I ever received on this technique was from Gary Roth, founder of Blue Collar Consulting Group. He understood and expertly practiced the art of providing compliments that contained authentic interest and elaborated the experience.

Active Constructive Responding is more than a simple, “Thanks for what you do!” It’s offering specific praise on a particular event generating gratitude and interest with firsthand knowledge. It’s calling out a behavior and celebrating that win.

That’s good—but keep going! A great compliment then starts digging into that behavior and involves the other person. Use questions like, “How did you think to do that?” and “Where do you get you inspiration from?” You involve the other person and have them elaborate on their positive experience.

This technique generates conversation and ideas for the future, and develops meaning in both the sender and the receiver. The two key traits to be successful are genuine gratitude and intellectual curiosity. If you can capture these two emotions, you’ll build stronger relationships, group cohesion, trust, well-being, and satisfaction for both parties.

Recognize Someone Today

We don’t have to wait until it’s someone’s birthday to give a heartfelt, genuine compliment. Effective praise can, and should, be used every day. Next time you want to say thank you to someone, don’t offer a flippant “thanks.” Recognize the positive behavior and impact, thank them from the heart, and ask questions on how they got there. Shake their hand and find someone else to recognize. It will make a difference in your organization!

Leadership is a journey that we’re all on, and none of us have arrived. I invite you to join us in The Maximum Standard as we publish a new leadership article every Tuesday by Email. We encourage you to subscribe for a free, no-ad leadership lesson delivered to your inbox every week. Let’s grow together!

One thought on “The Birthday Compliment

  1. Great discussion on “praise”. Thanks for the reminder to go beyond “thanks” for what you do day to day. 👍🏻


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: