Backhanded Compliments

Those of us who teach negotiation often focus on building rapport and being attentive to relational dynamics. Expressing appreciation is part of the negotiator’s skillset, and giving compliments falls somewhere in this area. But how do we do this effectively? A new study explores the effectiveness of the “backhanded compliment” in interpersonal dynamics. As it turns out, backhanded compliments are ineffective in two ways: one, they don’t make the complimentee feel good; and two, they reflect badly on the complimenter.

So then why do people give backhanded compliments? The study points out that the backhanded compliment-giver may be trying to protect (or assert) status, even though they recognize on some level the risk of the qualified compliment:

Not surprising, study respondents said the way to be liked is to give a genuine compliment. But if the goal is to also signal one’s status to others, especially when that status is under threat, then backhanded compliments are a weapon of choice.

And these weapons can be effective, according to Professor Brooks, who authored the study:

“Compliments are meant to make you feel like you’re one of the best,” said Brooks, but backhanded compliments make it clear the giver has a comparison standard in mind that should never be articulated. “Probably underlying all compliments, the person giving the compliment is thinking of a comparison set, they’re just not making it salient. That’s how the social mind works. The person receiving it doesn’t think about it; the person just feels good. With backhanded compliments, the speaker is making that comparison set perfectly explicit, and it feels terrible: ‘Hey, I’m the best of the worst!’”

Perhaps the takeaway here, in terms of negotiation pedagogy, is to draw students’ attention to the micro-analysis of appreciative expressions, so that they can see how different formulations of compliments have different impacts. Additionally, it may be productive to think through the backhanded compliment as a clumsy way to deal with the tension between empathy and assertiveness.

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