I spent a month in the summer of 2006 working in Kent Pinkerton's lab in the Center for Health and the Environment at UC Davis. The students and postdocs in the lab who worked with Kent were intelligent, articulate, and kind. They supported each other and helped me considerably. Despite feeling underqualified, I felt welcome with all of my colleagues (although I feel that I'm arrogating myself to call them that).
It didn't take long for me to realize that Kent's influence over the lab was considerable. He was respected for being very capable in his work, but he was loved for being a kind tutor. He communicated effectively and did an admirable job of helping people feel good about themselves. Before my month in his lab was over, I found myself observing him to learn what I could about the art of building others up. I've practiced what I learned over the years and, although I don't claim to be a master of this art, my ability to build others has improved greatly.
With this post, I hope to simultaneously thank Kent for this significant contribution to my life and to pass on some of what I've learned about this important skill.
I think that the first thing I noticed about Kent is that he's sincere. It's simply impossible to not believe him, even when he says incredible things. I still remember meeting with him at the end of my time in his lab. I'd done some simple analyses of some slides and remember that he exclaimed, "You were worth every penny!" I certainly hadn't thought I was worth every penny; I actually had thought of myself as something of a charity case. But the way he said it made it impossible for me to disbelieve him. Sincerity was not a new idea to me, as I'd been taught to be sincere all my life – but Kent's sincerity was so apparent that I was able to see why it mattered.
As I attended lab meetings and watched Kent doing research with the others, I also realized that he was very specific in his compliments. He would isolate exactly what someone had done or a characteristic that someone had and talk about it. Specificity matters because it communicates sincerity and because it doesn't sound like a platitude. I blame my egocentricity for the fact that I don't remember any specific compliments that Kent gave to others in the lab, but I do remember that he told me that, "We'll make a scientist out of you yet." At the time, I was planning to become an electrical engineer and Kent recognized specific aptitudes and abilities that would make me valuable in research. Without this comment, made in passing, I may never have considered a career in research.
The two compliments I've mentioned were effective because I could tell that Kent really cared. It wasn't that he cared about me (although I have no doubt he did and does), but that I could tell that the things he talked about really mattered to him. His enthusiasm made compliments that would have been nice into great compliments. The first compliment showed his enthusiasm for good evidence to inform the community. From the second compliment, I inferred that Kent values his field and wants it to do well – and that he wanted me to be a part of it because he saw that I could contribute.
I appreciated his comments particularly because they addressed insecurities of mine – things that kept me up at night. At the time, I was not at all confident that I was worth the hassle and the pay that I'd cost the lab. And I wasn't confident that my abilities were up to par. Such emphatic, unsolicited validation eased the burdens that I'd been trying to carry without addressing them externally.
It is crucial to note that these compliments described essential, not superficial, characteristics. They complimented who I really am on the inside and not something ancillary to my character, such as my appearance or a first impression of me. Addressing people's identity raises the stakes; the insults that sting the most and the compliments that provide the largest preponderance of warm, fuzzy feelings are the ones that describe the soul.
Of course, my listed generalities only help so much. It can be difficult to find useful and effective compliments for other people, especially on demand. Over the years, I've discovered that a few habits have greatly improved my ability to give compliments.
I've learned to observe people carefully. I'm not content to know what people are doing because understanding why they do what they do gives important insight into who they are. It helps to never assume that I've achieved my goal of understanding people. They are infinitely complex, which makes them interesting and which gives me cause to keep observing. Of course, passive observation has its limits. I have found it useful to combine careful observation with good questions.
I've also learned to believe the best of people. It's easy to assume that people do what they do because of some character flaw or other, but I've found that there is a deeper understanding to be had of virtually every person's motivation for any action. Assuming the best allows me to stop judging and to keep looking for others' good qualities. As I do so, I'm able to see specific characteristics of other people that I wouldn't see were I judging them.
Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned to do to build people up is to care about them. When I care about people, it shows. They respond with trust, which allows me to understand them better and therefore to build them up more effectively. As I have chosen to serve others, especially those to whom I'm not naturally drawn, I've found it easier to love them. This increased love has enabled me to build them up as I could not do previously.
One of the principal joys in life is sharing a sincere smile with someone else. Giving good compliments makes me happy because it makes my friends happy. I hope it does the same for you.