The power of the opposite compliment

Let’s say we’re kids, and you’re looking to have fun at my expense by insulting me. What can I say to stop you? This is one of the common 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 work well, and they are well-known in the popular literature. Others work less well. Perhaps the least successful is one that has been promoted most. It’s part of the highly advertised Talk, Walk and Talk approach. The talk part entails telling you, “Stop! I don’t like that!” This is exactly what you want to hear! It is literally an invitation for you to continue.

The walk part involves walking away. This is supposed to free me from you. But it also lets you know that the insult upset me, so you are likely to continue saying it. And then the tell part, which involves informing adult authorities, is the clincher. It turns me into a snitch, which can lead to serious hostilities against me.

Water off a duck's back

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

  • “So?”
  • “And?”
  • “Thanks for your opinion.”
  • “Your point is…?”
  • “Sometimes I feel like that.”
  • “I didn’t hear you. Can you say it louder?”
  • “Do you believe that?” If the answer is, “Yes,” my follow-up response is, “You can believe it if you wish.’
  • “Is that the best you can do?”
  • “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 has been a response that I have come to like above all others for most situations. It requires almost no 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 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.


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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 ugly!
Me: Well, I think you are good-looking.
You: But you’re still ugly!
Me: And I still think you are good-looking.
You: But you’re still ugly.
Me: And you’re still good-looking.

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

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

Teaching it to kids

Let’s say you are a parent, teacher or counsellor, and a child informs you that they’re being insulted. Here’s how I suggest you help them. Ask if they want the kids to stop insulting them. They will certainly say, “Yes.” It helps to use the insult that is being used against them, so ask them what’s the most common insult they face. Let’s say it’s “ugly.” Then say, “I’m going to teach you how to make them stop. I’m going to play a game with you. Call me ugly, and don’t let me stop you.” You will do two trials. It will go something like this.

Trial One

Child: You are ugly!
You: No, I’m not!
Child: Yes, you are!
You: No, I’m not! Stop saying that!
Child: But it’s true!
You: Stop it already!
Child: No! You’re ugly!

Trial Two: After several rounds, say:

You: I give up. I’m not making you stop, am I?
Child: No.
You: Isn’t this fun?
Child: Yes.
You: Now do it again. Call me ugly and don’t let me stop you.
Child: You are so ugly!
You: I think you are good-looking!
Child: Thanks!

Wait a few seconds and continue:

You: Do you want to continue calling me ugly this time?
Child: No. I want to thank you.
You: Yes, now you like me better. You see, they are not calling you ugly because you’re ugly but because you get upset and try to stop them when they call you ugly. So instead, call them good-looking. They will stop very quickly and are more likely to be nice to you in the future.

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

Child: You are so dumb!
You: I happen to think you are 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 really good at sports!

Child: You are so gay!
You: No one would ever think that you’re gay!

You will find that most kids love learning this 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 this. If they’re insulting you, chances are they’re not just trying to have fun getting you upset. In their minds, they are probably trying to let you know something important about you. Answering with the opposite compliment is likely to be inappropriate. So instead of getting upset, try to find out what their gripe is. Show them that you appreciate their letting you know and address them like a friend.


Israel “Izzy” Kalman - MS, NCSP is a luminary in the field of bullying. Slowly but surely, he has been changing the way the world understands and deals with bullying, exposing the problems with the predominant legalistic approach while promoting a more psychologically valid one. His work has been featured in major media, including the New York Times and Good Morning America.

Image credit: Pexels 

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  • Paul Stain
    commented 2023-08-01 15:19:25 +1000
    I find the bully’s attack here unconvincing and amateurish. Surely, you go for something about the victim’s family, clothes or mannerism. By making it absolutely personal it hurts more. Children soon find the remark that gives the desired result. Once the trigger is found being nice is not going to put the bully off. The expected response gives the bully the joy and the desire to repeat the abuse. It is absolutely vicious. There is another approach that I tried but I would not advise it.
  • Jean Seah
    commented 2023-08-01 13:46:16 +1000
    Clever! This strategy ought to be taught everywhere.