I recently watched my DVDs of the TV miniseries Bleak House, then reread the Dickens novel. One of the minor characters—Inspector Bucket—caught my attention. Bucket demonstrates his ability to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. More particularly, Bucket knows that people tend to live up, for down, to the expectations we reveal to them. I became so fascinated with Inspector Bucket that, in scanning the text looking for quotations for this article, I found myself rereading much more than was necessary.
When Lord Dedlock urges Inspector Bucket to solve the murder of his attorney, Mr. Tulkinghorn, he never suspects that the case will reveal scandalous secrets within the Dedlock family. How does the savvy inspector manage to tell the baronet that these secrets involve his own wife without getting thrown out on his ear? He uses a predictive compliment. Bucket compliments Lord Dedlock, not on something he has done, but on something that Bucket “knows” he will do:
It’s my duty to prepare you for a train of circumstances that may, and I go so far as to say that will, give you a shock. But Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, you’re a gentleman; and I know what a gentleman is, and what a gentleman is capable of. A gentleman can bear a shock, when it must come, boldly and steadily. A gentleman can make up his mind to stand up against almost any blow. Why, take yourself, Sir Leicester deadlock, Baronet. If there’s a blow to be inflicted on you, you naturally think of your family. You ask yourself, how would all them ancestors of yours, away to Julius Caesar—not to go beyond him at present—have borne that blow; you remember scores of them that would have borne it well; and you bear it well on their accounts, and to maintain the family credit. That’s the way you argue, and that’s the way you act, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet.
As predicted, Sir Leicester steels himself for the news, but it’s worse than he can imagine. His trusted attorney Tulkinghorn had, in fact, hired Bucket to investigate Dedlock’s beloved wife. Tulkinghorn learned that Lady Dedlock had a lover before Sir Leicester began to court her. Tulkinghorn had argued with Lady Dedlock about his plans to tell her husband all about it. But before he could carry out his plan, he was shot and killed in his chambers. Worse, on the same night as the murder, his wife left the house, and a woman matching her description was seen at the Tulkinghorn’s chambers.
Sir Leicester lives up so well to Inspector Bucket’s prediction of calm and dignity that, although he’s on the brink of a stroke, he manages to complete the necessary conversation with the inspector, fighting down impulses to “utter inarticulate sounds.”
Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock believes her love letters to Esther’s father have fallen into the hands of a scoundrel who intends to give them to her husband. She also realizes that she will be suspected of the attorney’s murder because she did go to his chambers on the night in question, though she did not kill him. For the sake of her husband’s honor, she flees, and Bucket is tasked with finding her before she does herself harm, perhaps the ultimate harm.
Bucket enlists the assistance of one of the major characters, Esther Summerson, to search for the lady on the lam. Only recently, Lady Dedlock had admitted to Esther that she was her love child, but swore Esther to secrecy.
An ordeal lies ahead for Esther and Bucket, racing hither and yon by coach in bitter cold, sleet and snow, all one night, through the next day, and into the following night. When they arrive at a shop where Inspector Bucket fears Esther will hear bad news, he encourages her with another predictive compliment, “Miss Summerson, you won’t be alarmed whatever comes off, I know.” There they acquire a note written by Lady Dedlock indicating her intention to lie down and die of exposure and heartbreak. But as predicted, Esther controls her emotions so she can continue to help Bucket.
These fictional Victorian examples may be a little over-the-top by today’s standards, but we can learn a lot from Inspector Bucket’s technique of the predictive compliment. If you would like someone to behave in a certain way, and believe they can, tell them so. You might say to an employee, “You got a creative mind, and I trust you to plan this project.”
One caveat: don’t let predictive compliment turn into pressure, for example, for a child to pursue a particular college major or profession without knowing that the young person is actually interested in that field.
But when you believe someone is capable of something that they themselves would, ideally, like to do, tell them so. Then stand back and watch them soar.