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I Just Received a Compliment

| June 12, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… How do I respond?


Compliments are a good thing, right? Everyone likes to be recognized for a job well done. Especially from someone whose work you admire. They are a special form of positive feedback. However, many of us find accepting a compliment with grace to be a major challenge. Too often, our first instinct is to dismiss the compliment. For example, the recipient:

  • ignores the compliment or does not recognize what was said as one.
  • denies the compliment – “I didn’t do anything special.”
  • argues that he or she doesn’t deserve any special praise.
  • questions the giver’s judgment.
  • in response to a compliment, immediately compliments the individual who gave the initial compliment.
  • has trouble accepting the compliment and seeks confirmation; “Do you really think so?”
  • transfers the credit immediately back to others.  “Sam made a greater contribution to the project than I did.”

Behaviors such as these are not only not helpful but may cast the recipient in a negative light.

Now, there are lots of reasons why we don’t like to receive compliments and behave this way. For example, 

  • I might fear being seen as conceited.
  • if I agree with the compliment, I might be seen as praising myself.
  • I prefer to live in a “balanced” world. If you give me a compliment, I need to similarly give you one.
  • if you give me a compliment and I don’t give you one, I may see myself as indebted to you.
  • if I have low self-esteem and don’t believe in my capabilities, I may disbelieve or deny a compliment.
  • if you give me a compliment, I may question your motives. Are you trying to “suck-up to” or flatter me? Or, it might make me indebted to you?

Research at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition has shown that two-thirds of the time, Americans respond to compliments with something other than, or in addition to, “Thank you.” We may shift credit – “Sally did the really hard work.” Make a historical comment – “That was just some code I wrote last year.” Question the complimenter – “You really think so?” Reject it – “I didn’t do anything that special.”
So, how should we respond to a compliment.  Certainly, we should, in one way or another, respond with “thank you.” As we noted in the previous paragraph, we tend to deflect or minimize the compliment about two-thirds of the time. Generally, this is neither very smart nor polite. When we deny the compliment, or deflect it, we really insult the person who made the compliment. He or she has observed something in you that they thought was praiseworthy. To deflect, minimize, or deny that praise, you are basically contradicting them and saying that they don’t have good judgment or are being insincere, trying to curry favor. And, you are making them feel uncomfortable, awkward, stupid, or frustrated. Where does your conversation with that individual go from this point?
Further, denial or deflection decreases the likelihood of someone complimenting you again. They might think, “Why should I compliment her or him again since they dissed me the last time.”
Compliments show that someone saw value in you or your work. If you dismiss the compliment you are saying to them that you either do not have the capabilities that they recognized or are so insecure that you don’t recognize or acknowledge that you do. Either way, your value is diminished in their eyes.
So, how do you accept a compliment? Here are seven approaches you may find helpful:

  1. Begin with “Thank you.” It’s an easy way to express your sincere gratitude.  “Thank you, I appreciate the compliment.” “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.” “Thank you. Those words coming from you are very meaningful to me.” The key here is to always accept their words as a sincere expression of what they believe.
  2. Sometimes, you’ll be complimented for the work of your team. In your response, be sure to acknowledge that it was the team’s work, not just yours. “The team worked hard to complete the project. Thank you for recognizing our hard work.”
  3. Compliments may make us feel like we are seeking undeserved attention. We may feel the need to respond with a self-deprecating statement. Hold that thought. Undermining another individual’s compliments isn’t doing you any favors. Trying to disavow what they’ve said will make further conversation very difficult.  So, enjoy the moment. You deserve it.
  4. Do watch your body language. Don’t cross your arms or otherwise appear disinterested. Maintain eye contact, lean slightly forward, engage those around you with warm facial expressions. This is your moment, enjoy it!
  5. Don’t undermine the compliment. Receive it with gratitude. Don’t down play it with comments like “It wasn’t a big deal.” or “Thanks, but it was nothing.” When you downplay a comment, you may think that you are showing humility. However, you may really be making the person who gave you the compliment feel rejection.
  6. Don’t try to out compliment someone who has paid you a compliment. Saying something like, “Thank you, but we both know my input was not nearly as important as yours.” Embrace the moment and be grateful for the praise.
  7. If you are receiving a physical award, a plaque or certificate, etc., accept it with your left hand so that your right hand is free to shake the hand of the presenter and others who might like to congratulate you.

Compliments are the way that we acknowledge the excellent hard work of others to support our activities, those of our organization, and others around us like family and friends. As individuals, we need to be aware of and acknowledge the results from this hard work. As leaders, we show that we are aware and care when we acknowledge the hard work of those around us. 
So, this week when you are complimented, smile, say “Thank you,” and reflect on and believe the praise that was offered to you.  And, look for opportunities to compliment those who support your work. As you do, be specific, and not default to the generic “Thank you, great job.”
Do make this a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
For Further Reading:

  1. Carolyn Bucior, How to Accept a Compliment, The New York Times, May 2018.
  2. Brett and Kate McKay, How to Accept a Compliment With Class, The Art of Manliness Blog, July 2013.
  3. Kat Boogaard, 4 Ways Confident People Accept a Compliment, The Muse Blog.
  4. Jacqueline Whitmore, How to Gracefully Accept a Compliment, The Huffington Post, April 2015.