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“That was great, but…” is not a compliment! In 5 Minutes or Less

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

By: Dr. Lisa M. Coffey

September 2021

Keywords: Compliments, negativity, incivility, toxicity, opinions, insecurities, change, awareness, growth

Have you ever faced a compliment that was destroyed by "but”? I have, and needless to say, it isn't charming. So lately, I have been trying to understand why people cannot compliment without demeaning undertones and why critical analysis is necessary. So why do we offer encouragement/support and instantaneously evoke negativity with "but" statements? These are backhanded compliments. Perplexing is the realization that opinionated folks often share their random thoughts, and those thoughts are irrelevant. I want to yell out, who cares what you think! But the researcher in me forces me to understand the dynamic between complimenting and insulting. Are you following my thought process? Let me explain. Have you ever heard any of the following statements or something similar?

  • “I like your hair, but….”

  • “I think that was a great performance, but I would have...”

  • “That was nice, but if it were up to me ...”

  • “That was amazing, but it would have been better if...”

What do these underhanded compliments have in common? "but." These are not compliments. Stop it!

Dr. Ken Smith, a clinical director of a counseling practice in Northern California, offers this explanation. Sometimes when we recognize the accomplishments of others and shine the light upon them, our insecurities are triggered. Compliments require self-confidence and self-esteem, and when those compliments are faulty, it's because of our inadequacies. Furthermore, giving praise upsets the balance pendulum. In other words, the one complimenting relinquishes some power because the receiver is elevated at that moment. "Being able to freely recognize good things in others is a sign of emotional intelligence and maturity" (Smith, 2019).

When we offer compliments to one another, leave the "but" off the statement. If you cannot give a compliment without giving your unsolicited opinion, keep the compliment to yourself. Have you heard the message, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all?” No one wants to listen to your ideas of how something could have been better, in your opinion! Furthermore, if you are a "but" person, I challenge you to self-reflect on why you feel the need to deflate others with a sideways compliment? Failure to offer sincere praise reflects a need for personal growth.

Recently, I have been the receiver of many but compliments. I posted a blog about civility, and providing sincere compliments shows civility towards one another. On the other hand, there are times when constructive criticism is necessary, and I am all for growing through feedback. However, I believe those personal interjections are not positive because of a style preference delivered from a "but" perspective. Instead, those statements tear down and do not build up. So, think before you speak, and stop being so critical. If you have received these "but" compliments, you know the feeling. If you are giving those "but" compliments, stop.

I am guilty of letting the backhanded compliments slide. Not anymore. The only way to stop the incivility is to call out the insult by offering positive growth feedback. “Thanks for the first part of your compliment, and I appreciate your recognition of my efforts. However, everything after, but I choose to ignore because I refuse to acknowledge negative energy.” Perhaps my response will trigger some dialogue between the two that will serve as a teachable moment.

Key takeaway:

Am I talking to you? What have you learned from this post? Do you give backhanded compliments, receive them or fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum? Either way, self-reflect to understand your position, make the necessary adjustments if you are giving backhanded compliments, and take action to stop the negativity in its tracks.

Works Cited

Smith, Ken. Why giving a compliment can be so hard. January 2019. 19 August 2021. <>.

© 2021 Lisa M. Coffey



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