Flattery: Enemy of Confidence?

Is flattery the enemy of confidence? If so, why? More importantly, if flattery is the enemy of confidence, what should we use in place of flattery?

Flattery defined

When I looked up the word flattery in the dictionary, the first part of the definition is “excessive and insincere praise.”

Some would say that flattery is intended to help others feel good about themselves. Implicit in this thinking is that flattery will boost a person’s confidence. But is that true?

Flattery’s impact

I don’t think so. I think that flattery encourages behavior which is likely to cause the person problems in the future.

If I suggest to someone that their abilities exceed what I’ve observed, they may tackle challenges they’re ill-prepared to handle successfully. In other words, I might be setting the person up to fail…which could lead to dire consequences.

I don’t run that risk when I’m honest with them about their abilities while suggesting to them ways in which they can improve their skills. In this approach I acknowledge and congratulate them on the success they’ve enjoyed while positioning them for even greater success in the future. This outcome isn’t likely when flattery is employed.

Candor and encouragement

Unfortunately too many of us have grown up in environments in which we haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to be candid and encouraging simultaneously. Here are a few tips:

  1. Frame your comments in terms of accomplishment e.g. “You’ve done a good job of getting to this point. Here are some things that may help you improve on the success you already enjoy.”
  2. Congratulate the person on what they’ve accomplished, then ask “What are your plans for getting to the next level?” People don’t often realize that they’ve been successful much less given any thought to how to get to the next level.
  3. If the person is denigrating their success, say “Stop it! You’ve done some amazing things. Give yourself credit for having done so. Others have not enjoyed the success you have.”

The language in all of these suggestions is both candid and encouraging. It’s the honesty of the compliment that allows the recipient of the praise to feel good about themselves.

That’s not what they experience with flattery. We’re all pretty good at knowing when someone is blowing smoke at us. When we sense insincerity in what we’re being told it causes us to wonder what the person’s motives are, which in turn raises doubts in our minds and diminishes our confidence in our own abilities.

For you

When you feel yourself wanting to flatter someone, pause a moment, then reframe what you were about to say using the positive language outlined above.

If you are the recipient of flattery, thank the person for their kind words, then share with them your own self-evaluation which is a more realistic assessment of your skills and abilities. In doing so, you’re sending a polite message that while you appreciate their attempt to help you, you value candor. You’ll also let them know that you are being candid with yourself.

For our kids

When you observe your kids using flattery, let them know that they’re doing a disservice to the person they are flattering. Then share with them the language of candor and encouragement. They’ll readily adopt it because they feel better about themselves for being honest and helpful.

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