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6 Ways to Say Something Nice About People You Don't Like

Never again be stuck for something nice to say about someone you don't like.

Key points

  • Requiring an all-or-nothing, like-or-dislike rating in an evaluation narrows the evaluator's options to say something positive.
  • Breaking up a person's evaluation into competency-based subscales can make it easier to come up with positive attributes to mention.
  • Considering satisfaction vs. effectiveness can help one be more fair in evaluating someone else.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Sometimes we like people and sometimes we don’t, but even for those you don’t like, you should be able to find some redeeming qualities. Let’s say you’ve got to give a toast honoring your cousin, but try as you might, you can’t think of a single nice thing to say. Or perhaps you’ve been asked by a supervisor to provide a recommendation for a coworker being considered for a promotion. You don’t regard the colleague very highly, but you’ve been specifically asked to list both strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are no problem, but the strengths are a stretch.

As it turns out, we’re put in these situations surprisingly often. Most of the time, you can think of something nice to say, but for some people, you just draw a blank. Research by Western Sydney University’s Craig Gonsalvez and colleagues (2017) on supervisory evaluations in psychotherapy provides some clues on how to dig deep into your repository of nice things to say about people you don’t particularly like.

A key aspect of psychotherapy training involves the supervision of a developing therapist by supervisors able to provide commentary and suggestions that will guide the new therapist’s growth. To be able to do so well, the supervisor needs to focus on both strengths and weaknesses, even if the strengths are in only a very formative, early stage. At the same time, training is a two-way street, and supervisees may be asked to rate those who are guiding them. As the Australian team points out, because training involves handing out grades or recommendations, there are better measures for evaluating a supervisee than there are to evaluate supervisors. The purpose of their investigation was to develop and test just such a tool.

When supervisees must evaluate their superiors, as Gonsalvez et al. point out, they find themselves being asked to consider the supervisor's competence separate from whether they like them as people. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment: Imagine working for a boss who clearly is an expert in the field, and whose depth of understanding leaves you in awe. However, you don’t actually like the boss that much. When you’re making an evaluation of this person, ideally you will not let your feelings color your appraisal of how much you can potentially learn on the job by working with this knowledgeable individual. You would hope that, similarly, your supervisor can be objective in rating your ability to do the job.

In the evaluation method that Gonsalvez and his collaborators developed, the satisfaction versus effectiveness dimensions became the key focus. A sample of 142 therapists in training (average age of 30 years, almost all of them female) enrolled in an internship rated their supervisors on 31 items using a 7-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree). The study intended to validate that the questionnaire provided support for the existence of six unique clusters. The resulting instrument is called the Supervision Evaluation and Supervisory Competence (SE-SC) scale.

The main objective of the Western Sydney University study was to show that dividing supervisor ratings into discrete competency-based scales would better serve the goal of providing supervisors with feedback on their performance than generic, all-or-nothing ratings. When you’re making judgments about other people, you too often make a like-or-dislike rating, which narrows your options considerably when you’re asked to say something good about someone you don’t much like. By breaking your evaluation up into competency-based subscales, there’s a good chance you can dig around for something positive relating to the person’s knowledge, if not their personality.

Below are the six scales from the SE-SC, translated into more general terms. Use them now to think about how you would rate that person you’re not really all that high on to see what might emerge. (“X” represents the person you're speaking of.)

1. Openness, caring, and support: In day-to-day dealings, I got along well with X.

2. Knowledge and expertise: X was knowledgeable and could communicate concepts clearly.

3. Planning and management: X organizes and manages efficiently.

4. Goal-directed: X provides and negotiates clear objectives.

5. Restorative competencies: X is sensitive to my emotional and self-care needs.

6. Insight into and management of relationship dynamics: X helps me gain an understanding of my emotional reactions.

As you try to answer these six questions in terms of your target individual, consider whether there are, in fact, areas in which you would rate this individual highly, despite having an overall negative assessment of his or her personality. Have you overlooked the possibility that the person is knowledgeable about areas in which you are not? Is this person able to run an efficient meeting or get a lot done in a short amount of time? Despite your personal distaste for the individual, do you feel that the two of you could sit down and plan out mutually satisfactory goals?

Evaluations such as the SE-SC may be most appropriate for the workplace, but they could also be useful in situations at home or with a community group. You and a group of parents may be trying to set fundraising goals for a youth basketball league, and perhaps several people in this group annoy you to no end. Nevertheless, these people are able to generate a few very successful events that they both plan and carry out. Alternatively, perhaps they annoy you because they’re useless in these situations, but they may have redeeming qualities in that they’re nice people who make the work-related tasks (that you end up carrying out) more pleasurable.

It would be best in our relationships if we never had to search for laudatory qualities to describe those we work with or are close to, but we can’t always be that lucky. Taking a page from the SE-SC playbook can allow you to look more systematically, and perhaps more fairly, to accentuate a bit more of the positive.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Gonsalvez, C. J., Hamid, G., Savage, N. M., & Livni, D. (2017). The Supervision Evaluation and Supervisory Competence Scale: Psychometric validation. Australian Psychologist, 52(2), 94-103. doi:10.1111/ap.12269

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