How to Compliment a Woman

Giving a really good compliment is a powerful skill that can help you create a passionate, amazing relationship. And while I 100% believe that it’s a useful talent, regardless of the gender of the person you’re giving it to, it’s even more important when you’re talking with a woman.

There are lots of reasons for that. Generally speaking, men get a lot more feedback about the things we do, while women get compliments for how they look. I’ve been watching So You Think You Can Dance and it’s startling how often the judges’ feedback for the women is about how beautiful they look, rather than for how beautifully they dance. And even when the guys are complimented for their appearance, it’s almost never the entirety of what the judges say to them.

Another element to be aware of is that most women (I’m tempted to say all women, though I tend to avoid all-or-nothing statements) deal with a lot of unwanted sexual advances and sexual intrusion, and most men are pretty unaware of the impact of that. A lot of men will use a compliment as a way to strike up a conversation, and plenty of them get angry if a woman isn’t immediately grateful for the attention. One of the consequences of that is that it becomes hard for women to trust that a compliment is genuine. This shows up in different ways in established relationships than between strangers, but plenty of women have told me that the only time their boyfriends or husbands compliment them is when they want to have sex.

While most of what I’m saying here applies to givers and receivers of any gender, the larger cultural patterns of sexism and gender-based inequality means that there are specific challenges when cisgender men compliment women (cis, trans, or non-binary), so that’s what I’m going to focus on. People of other genders or in other gender combinations will probably find some of this useful and other parts less relevant.

The Value Of A Good Compliment

When used well, compliments are a great way to tell someone that you appreciate something they’ve done. A lot of people feel unappreciated by their partners, which builds up resentment and kills relationships. When we don’t get feedback, it’s harder to know what we’re doing well and what we might improve. A well-phrased compliment helps us calibrate our actions so we can keep things on track. Telling someone that she looks pretty might be better than not saying anything, but it lacks substance. It’s like cotton candy, rather than a satisfying meal- it doesn’t last long and you can’t live on it. It’s far more effective to compliment her for what she does. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Compliments are a form of words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. According to Gary Chapman, there are five basic ways people can give or receive love and affection. Most people have a preferred mode, though with practice, we can usually give and receive all five. But even outside of romantic relationships, the love language model is a good way to think about how we tell the people in our lives that we value them. It works with coworkers, housemates, family member, friends, or anyone else you want to build a positive connection with.

The advantage of using your words is that it’s one of the easiest love languages to adapt to different kinds of relationships. Some of the others either take more time, more resources, or aren’t appropriate for some situations. While physical touch is usually a no-no between co-workers, a well-crafted compliment is appropriate for the workplace. And although gifts or quality time often work great for romantic partners, family members, or friends, they might not be the best fit when you want to give a neighbor or a housemate some appreciation. Plus, words work well in email, text messages, or a phone call, so they’re a lot more flexible than some of the other options. Using your words to offer an appreciation is a skill worth cultivating. So here are some tips for crafting a compliment that someone will want to hear.

Be Aware Of The Context

Giving a compliment to a stranger is different from giving one to someone you know. A lot of women experience harassment, catcalling, and men trying to get their attention, which can make it difficult for them to enjoy a compliment from a guy they don’t know. So one of the first things you need to do if you want to compliment a someone you’ve never met is to be very, very mindful of the impact of harassment, and to be clear on what your intention is.

If you want to use a compliment as a way of breaking the ice, you’re running the risk that she doesn’t want to hear it and doesn’t want to be bothered. When I asked women about this, some of them said that they never want to be interrupted or approached by guys they don’t know because they deal with it so often. That seemed to be more common among women who were attractive in a culturally stereotypical way (of course, that means different things in different communities and cultures), though it’s important to remember that that’s a generality. Some women get so fed up with being  hit on that they simply don’t want to have anyone approach them.

Other women said that they would prefer it if someone asked them first: “May I share a compliment with you?” For them, it depended on how they were feeling that day- sometimes, it would be welcome and other times, it would be intrusive. And still others said that they enjoy compliments from strangers if they’re heartfelt, offered without ulterior motives, and aren’t an interruption. If she’s reading a book or in the middle of a conversation with someone, for example, it’s unlikely to be welcomed.

The difficulty, of course, is that you have no way of knowing if someone has had a bad day, just got harassed by some dude, or is feeling down and would love a compliment. So some of the women told me that they think men should refrain from giving compliments to strangers and stick to offering them to women they know. Frankly, I think that’s a really good idea, especially if your compliments are motivated by your attraction or sexual desire for her.

Even in established relationships, it’s good to pay attention to the context. You might think that a compliment will cheer your girlfriend up after a bad day, but more often, it sends the message that her feelings of sadness or anger aren’t welcome. A compliment won’t “fix” her feelings- it’ll just tell her that you don’t want her to have them. It’s much better to empathize with her, let her know that you get why she feels upset, and let her have her emotions. There’ll be time for compliments later.

Check Your Intentions When Approaching A Stranger

When you see someone your find attractive, it’s natural to want to approach her. That is, after all, part of the definition of “attractive.” And a lot of dating advice suggests starting with a compliment because it’ll will hopefully make her feel good and want to talk with you. But there are two things that you need to be aware of.

First, most women know when you’re motivated by your sexual desire. Trust me- even when you think you’re playing it cool, they can usually still tell. And second, when you’re attracted to someone, it’s easy to make your approach more about what you want to get from her than how you hope she’ll feel. If you tell a woman she’s pretty and you get angry and insult and/or harass her if she doesn’t respond in the way you want, that’s because you were hoping for an outcome that didn’t happen. That means that your compliment was about what you wanted, rather than about her.

One good way to see if this is your pattern is to ask yourself how often you compliment people you don’t want to have sex with. If your compliments are usually about trying to get laid, then you can bet that the women you approach know that. I’ve heard lots of guys say that they don’t mean anything sexual when they compliment women and I always ask them: do you ever compliment women you don’t find attractive? Do you compliment men? (Of course, this question is mostly relevant for heterosexual guys.) If the only people you compliment are people you find attractive or who you want to have sex with, be honest about your intentions.

That can be a hard thing to face, so here are two suggestions for those situations. First, many of the women who said that it was difficult for them to be complimented by strangers said that it’s easier when the compliment is about what they’ve done rather than their appearance.

Second, if someone isn’t in the mood for it, or if she’s been getting catcalled and is feeling more sensitive around this, remember that while it isn’t your fault that this is the situation, it also isn’t her fault. Do your best to not take it personally and remember that the majority of the responsibility for this is all the bros who harass women or demand unpaid emotional labor from them. Whatever you do, DO NOT blame, attack, or insult her. Try to remember that as much as it sucks to have your compliment rejected, it sucks a thousand times more to have to deal with street harassment on a daily basis. Use your words to back off (as in: “I’m sorry to have bothered you. Have a good day.”), disengage, and move on. If you can’t do that, then don’t compliment women you don’t know. Stick with offering appreciations to women who know you and who will have more trust in your intentions.

Another factor to take into account is someone’s age. If you’re complimenting a woman who’s a lot younger than you, for example, that can easily come across as creepy, especially if there’s any sexual interest behind it. On the other hand, older women sometimes say that they feel invisible because lots of people (and society in general) seem to think that they aren’t sexual beings. A genuine compliment can make someone’s day, when it’s done well. The more you understand how these kinds of dynamics play out, the more you can say something that’ll be received in the way you want it to be.

If you want to compliment someone you already know, things are probably a bit different because she hopefully has more reason to trust your intentions. You still need to be mindful of the context of your relationship. A compliment to a casual friend needs to be lighter than one that you give to a partner. Several women I asked told me that having someone act overly familiar feels really intrusive, so you need to calibrate accordingly. Keep the compliment proportional to the relationship.

Make It About What She Did

Have you ever completed a project at work and had your boss say something like, “good job on that report”? Did that help you continue to do good work? Wouldn’t it be a lot more effective to have them say, “Those charts really helped me understand the situation.” The next time you’re writing a report, you’ll know what to do to make it useful.

It can be ok to sometimes compliment someone’s appearance, especially if they put effort and energy into it. But think about the difference between saying “you look really pretty “and saying “I really like how that scarf brings out the color of your eyes.” The second example is complimenting her on her choice of scarf. It tells her that she did something that you appreciate. It gives her much more useful feedback and lets her know why her decision worked.

Some other options:

  • Your new hairstyle frames your face really well.
  • That dress makes you look like a pinup girl. Very sexy!
  • I really like those earrings. They go really well with your outfit.

Do you see how these focus on what she did, rather than simply being pretty? Compliments like these will tell her that you really see her. Not just the surface stuff, but that you see her as person and that you see what she puts thought and energy into. For most women, that’s an unfortunately rare experience and it’ll make you stand out more in her mind.

A lot of guys find this somewhat intimidating since they don’t really know how to talk about women’s appearance without sounding clueless. One way I learned how to do it was by looking through InStyle Magazine with my partner. She likes to skim through it every so often, so I sat down with her and asked her what she liked and didn’t like about the different hairstyles, makeup tips, and clothing. That gave me some basic language for talking about these things and my ability to create a really good compliment when she gets dressed up skyrocketed. An informed opinion counts for a lot more, so it’s an investment of your time that’s worth making.

It’s even better if the majority of your compliments aren’t about how she looks. Make it about something she did like getting the chores done so you can have a fun weekend, or how she planned a romantic getaway, or cooked an amazing meal when you were working late. Tell her something about her intellect, her generosity, or her enthusiasm for football. One woman told me, “When I asked my own husband to find something to compliment besides my looks and/or sexiness, he stopped complimenting me altogether.” That seems really unfortunate to me.

Extra bonus points if your compliment is about something she’s put a lot of effort into or that most people wouldn’t usually comment on. One of my Facebook friends said that she loved it when she was told “I notice that you really do your best to be on time. I really appreciate that.” It felt like her sweetie was really paying attention to her, which had a big impact. Of course, this requires you to give your attention to the things she does. If you’re taking your partner for granted, you’re not going to be able to come up with a good compliment.

Keep it Simple and Short

I was once coaching a male/female couple, and he wanted to practice giving his girlfriend a compliment about a bookshelf she had recently repainted to match their living room. His intention was solid, but he got tangled up in explaining exactly why he liked what she had done, how it fit with the rest of their furniture, and how much he appreciated all the time she put into the project. It was really three compliments in one, and it felt to her like she didn’t get to enjoy any of them. She described it as feeling like she was trying to eat a fancy chocolate and he was shoving another one towards her face before she’d finished the one she already had.

The goal is to focus on just one thing. Offer one reason that you think it’s awesome. Don’t worry about telling her the most amazing thing about it- just pick one. Stick with that and give her a chance to receive your appreciation. It’ll be a lot more effective than trying to say everything at once. Overwhelming someone with too much enthusiasm or with too many examples doesn’t give her a chance to enjoy it.

Don’t Start Talking About How To Improve

This is more relevant for folks in an established relationship, rather than strangers. There are definitely times when you want to give constructive feedback. However, that is almost never right after you give someone a compliment. This can be a bit confusing because once of the more effective and well-known ways of giving feedback is the bookend approach: say something positive, offer a suggestion, say something positive.

The trick here is to be clear on what your intention is. If you want to give feedback, that’s fine. Just be aware that most of her attention is going to be on the suggestion for improvement, rather than the positive part. When you want to give someone a compliment, keep your focus on that. The goal of a compliment is to make someone feel good about what they’ve done, which is different from telling them how to do it better.

I also find that the bookend model of feedback is a lot more effective when there’s a foundation of genuine appreciation and compliments at other times. If your positive feedback is always a preface to a suggestion, it sends a message that you’re only saying it to soften the blow. Instead, lay the groundwork for more productive conversations by offering compliments at other times. It creates a more solid foundation and makes it easier to trust that you mean it when you give a compliment.

Don’t Do It Just To Get Laid

Another m/f couple I was working with was really struggling with their sexual dynamic. It turned out that the only times the guy would give his wife a compliment was when he was in the mood for sex. His intention was to create feelings of positive connection so that she would want to jump into bed. Unsurprisingly, she soon recognized the pattern and when he would compliment her, she never felt like it was genuine. Instead, it felt like he was trying to manipulate her, which made her shut down.

A genuine compliment has the intention of offering kindness, without trying to direct or influence what she does next. When your words have an ulterior motives, they come across as fake. It doesn’t matter if you truly believe what you’re saying. It still feels false because it’s obvious that you have some other goal in mind. Besides, lots of women are used to having guys try to get them into bed by complimenting them. Trust me- they know when you’re doing it, even if you think you’re being subtle. If you want to ask someone out or invite her into bed, be direct about it and use this formula. It works a lot better.

Just to be clear, compliments can be a form of verbal foreplay, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem arises if the only time you offer them is when you want sex. If that’s your pattern, try taking a break from that and practice complimenting her for other reasons.

Practice

Some of the men I’ve talked with about this have told me that they don’t know what to say. It takes time to build up your compliment-giving skills, so here are a few ways to start.

The first thing you need to do is figure out what she’s done that you want to compliment her on. What are some of the things she puts her time and energy into? What’s something that she’s invested her energy into? If it’s something you also enjoy, that’s great but it doesn’t have to be. If she loves gardening and you can’t stand it, you can still tell her that you appreciate the effort she puts into making the yard look good.

Once you’ve identified something that she’s doing, think about what makes it meaningful to her. What does she enjoy about it? What are the things that inspire her to do it? Those are some good places to start because a compliment based on the answers to those questions will let her know that you really see her, that you understand what she thinks is important, and that you value them, too. Remember- even if it’s not your thing, showing that you care about how she feels is a skill worth building.

If you aren’t sure what she feels is important about something, ask her some questions:

  • What do you like about your new haircut?
  • How are you feeling about finishing that project?
  • What’s one thing that you find satisfying about organizing that book club?

File the answers away for when you want to turn them into a compliment. Remember that this is about you demonstrating that you understand what she values and that it’s important to you, too. Most of the women I asked about this said that the best thing about receiving a compliment is feeling like the person giving it really sees them as a person.

One Thought When Commenting On Her Appearance

If you’ve ever had someone ask you how they look in an outfit or with a new hairstyle, you probably know how tricky those situations can be. It can feel like you’re walking across a minefield, but here’s a good way to make it through. Comment on the clothes, rather than her. There’s a big difference between “that dress doesn’t really suit you” and “you don’t look as good in that dress.” It’s the clothing’s job to make the person look good, not the other way around. So if the outfit doesn’t work, it’s the outfit that needs to change, not her.

On the flip side, saying, “That dress looks amazing on you. You did a great job picking it out” is much more effective than “You look amazing in that dress.” The first version lets her know what she did, while the second one implies that she needs the dress to look good. This is a small shift that has the potential to really change things, so try it and see for yourself.

What Next?

From my conversations with female friends and clients, it’s pretty clear to me that lots of men don’t know how to give a really good compliment. That’s unfortunate because it’s a skill that’s really worth developing. When you get good at it, you can show your appreciation, deepen connection, demonstrate that you admire her for what she does, and build the kind of trust that makes it easier when you need to offer constructive feedback.

In addition to the short-term benefit, he more you show your appreciation, the more likely she’ll be inspired to do the same. That starts to build a positive feedback loop, which creates more resilience when the inevitable conflicts arise. As John Gottman points out in The Science of Trust, we need to have several positive interactions with our partners to balance out a negative one. Compliments are a great way to make that happen.

Looking For Help?

Learning these skills can seem overwhelming, especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past. I love helping people discover new ways to overcome their challenges and figure out how to make their relationships shine. Get in touch with me for a free 30 minute Get Acquainted call (phone or skype). Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.