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The Power of the Opposite Compliment

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Let’s say we’re kids and you’re looking to have fun at my expense by insulting me. What can I do to stop you? This is one of the major concerns of anti-bullying advisers, as insults are by far the most common form of bullying among kids. And though they’re just words, they can make kids absolutely miserable and even drive them to suicide.

There are actually many responses that can succeed, and they are well-known in popular literature. Others work less well. Perhaps the least successful is one that has been the most promoted. It’s part of the highly advertised Talk, Walk and Tell approach.

The Talk part entails telling you, “Stop! I don’t like that!” But this is exactly what a bully wants to hear. It is literally an invitation for them to continue.

The Walk part involves, unsurprisingly, walking away. It's supposed to free oneself from the bully. But it also lets the bully know that the insult upset me and I can't handle it, so he is likely to say it again the next time he sees me.

The Tell part, which involves informing adult authorities, seals my fate. The bully is furious at me for trying to get him in trouble with the authorities, so he feels justified being even meaner to me in retaliation. Plus, there's a good chance he'll tell his friends I'm a snitch and they shouldn't talk to me. And I may find myself repeating the Talk, Walk and Tell trilogy for the rest of my school career.

The better responses involve making it clear to the bully that the insult doesn’t bother me. The list is potentially endless. Here are some good examples:

  • “So?”

  • “And?”

  • “Your point is…?”

  • “Sometimes I feel like that.”

  • “I didn’t hear you. Can you say it louder?”

  • “Do you believe that?” If your answer is, “Yes,” my follow up response is, “If you want to believe it, I can't stop you."

  • “You’re not the first person who told me that.”

  • If you insult me about an obvious flaw or difference, I’ll say, “You just noticed?”

In recent years, there is a response that I have come to like above all others for pretty much any insult. It requires minimal thinking and works like a charm. It is actually the embodiment of the Golden Rule, which instructs us to be nice to people even when they are mean to us. The reason it works so well is that it totally catches you off guard, and is most likely to elicit an instinctive positive response from you. I call it the opposite compliment. It goes as follows.

You: You are so ugly!

Me: Well, I think you are good-looking!

You: Thanks!

And it usually ends there. It puts a smile on your face and you are more likely to be nice to me in the future.

What I’m doing is telling myself that if you’re calling me ugly, it’s because you want me to know that you’re good-looking. So that’s precisely what I tell you. Notice that I am not agreeing that I am ugly. I am just countering with how you look to me.

It doesn’t always end quite so quickly. It can go like this:

You: You are so ugly!

Me: Well, I think you are good-looking!

You: But you’re still ugly!

Me: And I still think you're good-looking.

You: But you’re still ugly.

Me: And you’re still good-looking.

After a couple of repetitions, the bully is bound to give up, and may even have trouble resisting a final response of “Thank you.”

For the opposite compliment to work, it is essential to say it sincerely. If I say it sarcastically, the bully won’t like it, and I will be met with more hostility.

If you're skeptical, try it out. Ask a friend or relative to insult you. Then answer with the opposite compliment and see their reaction.

Teaching it to kids

Let’s say you are a parent, teacher, or counselor, and a child informs you that they’re being insulted. Here’s how I suggest you teach this tactic to them. Ask if they want the kids to stop insulting them. They will certainly say, “Yes.” Ask them what’s the most common insult they face. Let’s say they tell you it’s ugly. Then say, “I’m going to teach you how to get kids to stop calling you ugly. I’m going to play a game with you. Call me ugly and don’t let me stop you.” You will do two rounds. It will go something like this.

Round One

Child: You are so ugly!

You: No, I’m not!

Child: Yes, you are!

You: No, I’m not! Stop saying that!

Child: But it’s true!

You: No, I'm not! Stop it already!

Child: No! You’re ugly!

After several rounds of the above:

You: I give up. I’m not making you stop, am I?

Child: No.

You: Is this fun?

Child: Yes.

Round Two

You: Let's play again. Call me ugly and don’t let me stop you.

Child: You are so ugly!

You: Well, I think you are good-looking!

Child: Thanks!

Pause for a second, then continue:

You: Do you want to keep on calling me ugly this time?

Child: No. I want to thank you.

You: Yes, now you even like me. You see, kids aren't calling you ugly because you’re ugly, but because you get upset and try to stop them when they call you ugly. So instead, tell them they're good-looking. They'll stop very quickly and will be more likely to be nice to you in the future.

Lastly, let the child practice with you. Inform them that you are going to insult them and they have to answer with the opposite compliment. If they do a good job with you, they are likely to be able to do it with the kids who pick on them.

You can use this for virtually any insult. Here are some more examples.

Child: You are so dumb!

You: Well, I happen to think you're smart.

Child: You have no friends! Nobody likes you!

You: You’re one of the most popular kids in the school!

Child: You suck at sports!

You: You’re a natural athlete!

You will find that most kids love learning this class of response and have fun using it.

How about adults?

Will it work if an adult is insulting you? Adult situations are usually more sophisticated than those of kids. If an adult is insulting you, chances are they’re not simply hoping to have fun getting you upset. In their minds, they're probably trying to tell you something important about yourself. Answering with the opposite compliment is likely to seem odd. So instead, sincerely try to find out what their gripe is. Show them that you appreciate them for letting you know and are considering what they say. Or, if they're insulting you because they're angry at you for doing something wrong to them, ask what it is. Discuss the matter with them and apologize if appropriate.

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