Five Compliments for Every One Criticism

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Many years ago, I took my children to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. A guide took us around and was patiently describing the history of the world, showing us fossils with great enthusiasm, and talking in detail about prehistoric times. About 15 minutes into the tour, one of my daughters, four years old at the time, raised her hand and asked if she could ask a question. With a gleam in her eye and a big smile on her face, eager to interact with a young child taking an interest in her life’s work, she said, absolutely, ask me anything. I, too, was very curious what fascinated my little girl so much and what question she would ask. I will never forget, my daughter looked up and said, “Um, I love your earrings, where did you get them from?”  I wanted to hide behind the tyrannosaurus rex, but while it wasn’t exactly the question she was looking for, the guide couldn’t help but smile from the compliment.


March 1 is international compliment day. First initiated in the Netherlands in 2001, this holiday has gained in popularity and spread across the world, with people making a concerted effort to offer others compliments specifically on that day. The founder of international compliment day explained why he started it: "Nothing stimulates more, gives more energy, makes people happier and, as far as business is concerned, increases productivity and commitment faster than sincere appreciation. So why not use it a little bit more?”


Our Parsha describes how the Kohen Gadol wore a robe that had bells and woven pomegranates along its hem. In 2011, archaeologists in the City of David found one of the little golden bells from the end of the Second Temple period. 


Chazal tell us that the bells atoned for lashon hara, the misuse and abuse of the power of speech. Indeed, there were seventy-two of these bells in total, not coincidentally the same number of possible shades of white that could make someone a metzora, the result of speaking gossip.


If you were trying to bring awareness to the importance of not misusing speech and inspiring people not to gossip and speak lashon hara, wouldn’t it be more fitting to institute a moment of silence in the Beis HaMikdash each day, rather than design a garment filled with bells that make noise?


Perhaps we can answer based on an insight from the Shemen HaTov, Rav Bernard Weinberger. Later in Parshas Metzora, the Torah says that the process of purification for one who suffered tzara’as as a result of speaking gossip is to offer two birds. If the offering is an atonement for abusing speech, why not simply bring one bird for the one violation? The Zohar explains that there are two because one bird corresponds with bad speech and one with good speech. What does that mean?


The Shemen HaTov explains that sometimes we have the opportunity to offer positive reinforcement, to give a compliment or say something nice, and yet we remain silent. You might think - what have you done wrong by staying silent? You didn’t say anything negative, you didn’t put down or criticize. The Torah is teaching this important lesson. The lack of positive reinforcement, the failure to offer a compliment or say something nice, can be just as demoralizing as negative speech, or sometimes even worse. One bird atones for saying the wrong thing, and the other sacrifice, equally important, atones for remaining silent and failing to say the right thing.


The garment that atoned for speech specifically had bells because the answer to wrong speech is not to remain silent, rather it is to use the power of speech to positively impact people’s lives. Our compliments should ring like bells, our appreciation, recognition, admiration, and positive words should reverberate like chimes. Being positive should be the default and be effortless, not the opposite.


If we want to inspire our spouse, our children, co-workers, or friends, they will respond much more positively to positive words than to criticism and reproach. A Harvard Business Review article asked - Which is more effective in improving team performance: using positive feedback to let people know when they’re doing well, or offering constructive comments to help them when they’re off track? 


Obviously, as Torah Jews, we believe in both. We don’t engage in false flattery, and we do subscribe to the mitzvah of tochecha, sometimes giving rebuke or reproof. The question isn’t which, the real question is in what proportion?


The article quotes researchers who studied sixty leadership teams and measured them based on profitability, customer satisfaction, and 360-degree feedback ratings of the team members. They found the factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments (“I agree with that,” for instance, or “That’s a terrific idea,”) to negative comments (“I don’t agree with you,” “We shouldn’t even consider doing that”) that the participants expressed to one another.


The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). The medium-performance teams averaged 1.9 (almost twice as many positive comments than negative ones.) But the average for the low-performing teams, at 0.36 to 1, was almost three negative comments for every positive one.


They concluded that the ideal ratio of positive feedback to negative, to have the most effective, motivated, and inspired teams is 5.6 to 1.


The Chasam Sofer suggests that Hashem understood the importance of offering positive words and compliments in getting the most out of the people around you.

Speak to those wise and talented artisans and tell them: “Asher meelaisiv ruach chochmah.” Tell them that they are people who are filled with a Godly wisdom. Give them that positive reinforcement… And if you do that and give them encouragement then, “Vasu es bigdei Aharon l’kadsho l’chahano li.” – Then they will be able to accomplish and create great things, the clothes of the Kohen Gadol.


Compliments matter. They motivate people to continue doing the right things they are doing and to grow more. They show appreciation and draw people closer. Dr. John Gottman has spent his career studying healthy marriages and has scientifically identified the behaviors that contribute to dysfunctional ones. He can spend a short time with a couple and predict with over 90% accuracy if they will still be married in 5 years from that point.


He found that the single biggest determinant to a happy and healthy marriage is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. And the optimal ratio is amazingly similar—five positive comments for every negative one. For those who ended up divorced, the ratio was 0.77 to 1—or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.


What is true for leadership teams is true for marriage and is true in parenting. On a given day, we say stop procrastinating from doing your homework, pick up your shoes, stop fighting. But how often do we say, you were playing so nicely, thank you for doing that without being asked, good job carrying your plate to the sink, or I love the way you are so loyal to your friends. Constructive criticism, feedback, honest feelings are all important and necessary, but for healthy marriages and motivated children, they need to remain at a ratio of one time for every five compliments or positive things.


Finally, be sincere with your compliment, and don’t exaggerate or go overboard. Be specific: “I admire way they handled a situation, I am impressed by your patience or generosity, I appreciate the delicious meal or the wonderful way you interacted with the children.”  Be creative, look to compliment, offer a positive word and it will bring out the best in others and make you feel good about yourself.


We don’t have to wait for March 1 to make it compliment day. Before the end of the day, offer the people you love at least five compliments or positive words for any negative feedback you might give. If you need help, you can always ask where they got their earrings.