If you participate in a personal growth group or run one yourself, you probably have no problem with a common rule that no one criticizes participants as they share their experiences or feelings. Consider adding the rule that no compliments be paid either, for they are merely the other side of the same coin. Compliments and criticisms are both forms of judgment, and they can put pressure on the recipient to please others, whether it is to earn praise or avoid criticism.
It’s a remarkable experience to be in a group that suspends both criticisms and compliments. When listeners just witness, speakers begin to follow suit; they ease off judging themselves. Without external or internal judgment, they become more open to whatever lies within.
Compliments can backfire in another way. They can trigger a receiver to argue the case as to why the compliment is not true, aloud or internally. “It’s true I did that [good deed], but he doesn’t know I resented it.” “But I spoke nastily about her behind her back.” “Actually, I could have tried harder.” “She doesn’t know about this other thing I did.” And so on. The possibilities are endless. Instead of feeding self-esteem, compliments can reinforce self-condemnation.
Even “I” statements (meaning speakers refer only to themselves rather than to the one who has finished speaking), imply a judgment. A person unsure of him/herself can easily interpret the comment as suggesting, “You should have handled it/responded my way.” “I” statements at their worst cast doubt and self-rebuke; at best, they pull the attention to “I” and distract the original speaker from processing his /her own experience.
Now, I’m not trying to suggest there is no place for compliments in this world! Only that, in a personal growth group setting where expectations and rules are clearly stated, it can be both freeing and healing to suspend judgment of any kind, to listen, and, if you’re going to make a comment, make it a clean one. Using Clean Language is one way to assure that you are not using judgmental language. Asking simple questions and repeating the sharer’s exact words, you add no content that s/he has not already acknowledged. You offer no interpretations, no comparisons. You keep the sharer’s focus on what s/he has just presented, allowing him/her the time and space to process what has emerged.
If you facilitate or participate in a counseling or growth group, try doing without criticisms and compliments. Both are un-clean. Both are forms of judgment. Positive or negative, they still encourage the sharer to take someone else’s opinion into account, consciously or subconsciously.
I suggest an appropriate response to someone who has spoken about himself or herself is to ask a question that invites further self-exploration such as, “And is there anything else you know about that?” or “And what difference does knowing that make?”
Or simply say, “Thank you for sharing.”