Later this month The Jeff Havens company will be putting out a video about the power of compliments, so I’ve been doing a little research (UPDATE: This video is done and included in this post, so enjoy!). Recently I learned something important that I can’t get across in a short YouTube video. As I’m sure you know, our style is to make short, entertaining videos with fast-talking actors (usually Jeff, who seriously doesn’t drink caffeine), because we want to keep your attention. While this method is great for certain things, I began to realize one of the biggest parts of what makes a compliment special – the context.

I came to this conclusion while browsing If you aren’t familiar with Quora, it isn’t much different from Yahoo answers – someone asks a question and then people from the web weigh in. Unlike Yahoo answers, however, Quora has found a way to minimize the creepy troll people and provide answers from smart, articulate people you actually WANT to listen to. I looked up “What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?” and there were plenty of fabulous answers, as I expected. But what I didn’t expect was that most of the compliments were long stories. For example, this one from Kony Kim:

— begin —

I don’t know if it’s the “best ever,” but it made my year, and I won’t forget it.

We both joined the GED Prep program at the same time: he as a student, I as a tutor. He was a cagey man who wore a tough facade and distrusted everyone, especially outside volunteers. I was a naive girl who had barely any prior contact with the prison system, and who knew little about the people in it.

This man was a sharp student, a quick learner. But his major obstacle to exam readiness, from day one, was his attitude: self-doubt, anxiety, debilitating frustration. It was impossible to help him with this because he had zero tolerance for advice. He’d just shut his ears, purse his lips, and deploy an icy death glare until the advice-giver stopped talking.

Over many months, this student and I developed an awkwardly affectionate working relationship. Week after week I showed up, marked up his essays, and gave detailed advice for revisions. Week after week he showed up, accepted my advice, improved his drafts, and gradually loosened up.

After about a year, he began to write essays about his life experiences — some of them comic, some jarringly traumatic. We talked about them, or rather he talked and I listened, and I absorbed bits and pieces of who he was before donning his facade. He clearly harbored a bottomless hunger to speak, to give voice to many bottled-up stories. His narratives were intense, but the act of releasing them visibly relaxed him.

Meanwhile, his writing improved. We kept plugging along inch by inch.

Two years later, I took a three-month break from GED tutoring to teach in the college program (at the same prison). During that period, I ran into this student in the yard as we were heading to our respective classrooms.

He was all smiles. He said I was missed over in GED Prep. And he was gearing up to take the exam, finally, next month. On his latest practice test, he was just a few points off from passing; he knew what he had to do and was feeling good.

I congratulated him. And I asked, “What happened to you?! Where’s the grouchy old [name] I once knew??”

He laughed. Then he told me that, over the last few years, he had realized that people aren’t all out to get him and don’t all have ulterior motives — that there are people in the world who genuinely want to help, not out of pity, but because they respect and believe in him. And if that’s true, he said, he could live in a manner worthy of that respect, and in turn be a positive presence in the lives of others.

Then he looked me in the eye and said: It’s from watching you that I have learned this.

A month later, this man passed the GED. He’s now volunteering as a tutor in the program where I met him.

— end —

You’re misty eyed right? I’ll give you a minute. Go get a tissue.

Maybe you aren’t tutoring a hardened prisoner and unknowingly teaching them how to trust again (or maybe you are, I don’t know what you do), but you probably have some coworkers you want to encourage. Start by watching our compliments video. We can give you the words to say. But it’s your job to figure out the context to say them in. HINT: It’s not once a year at your employee’s annual review.


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