How to Take a Compliment

A surprisingly large number of people do not know how to take a compliment. There’s something in our mind-set that says we cannot possibly deserve positive feedback and therefore anyone who pays us a compliment must be either lying, misguided, or feeling sorry for us. This is that little extra-critical voice in our heads, externalized and projected onto others; as if it weren’t enough that we undermine ourselves, we force others to undermine us too.

Think of the good we might do ourselves by easily accepting every compliment that’s offered us, even if we’re not entirely sure the person complimenting us is totally earnest. Instead of undermining our self-confidence, we would feed it. Instead of denigrating our achievements, we would promote them. And instead of tearing down relationships, we would strengthen them. A compliment is, after all, a kind of gift, and turning down a gift insults the person giving it, suggesting that you don’t value them as highly as they value (soon to be “valued”) you.

Alas, diminishing the impact of compliments is a pretty strong reflex for many of us. How can we undo what years of habitual practice has made almost unconscious? Here’s a list of some of the ways we sabotage compliments, followed by some pointers to help get you in the right mind-set to embrace the compliments you’re paid.

Stop doing this:

  • Putting yourself down: One reaction to compliments is to say “I don’t deserve it” and list reasons why. Stop doing that.
  • Assuming the other person doesn’t really mean it: You may be right, sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. Responding as if they did disarms whatever ulterior motive they might have. On the other hand, acting as if they didn’t mean it when they did is insulting and makes you come off as either a jerk or a basket case. Stop doing it.
  • Pointing out your weaknesses: A compliment isn’t about your weaknesses, it’s about your strengths. There’s plenty of time to focus on improving faults later; for now, bask in the recognition of what doesn’t need fixing.
  • Deflecting compliments to others: We often respond to the embarrassment of being singled out for praise by deflecting it to others. Others may be deserving, but so are you.
  • Claiming it was all “luck”: Another way of deflecting embarrassing attention from yourself, with the added bonus of freeing you from responsibility for not only your successes but your failures.
  • Making them work for it: Cut the long stream of “no, it was nothings” and “I just did what I had to dos” and let people give you the compliment. Putting it off until they’ve given it three or four times, each time more insistently, is selfish.

And start doing this instead:

  • Own your accomplishments: It wasn’t luck or the goodwill of others or any other reason that you managed to do something praiseworthy, it was your own effort and commitement. Even if you truly were just in the right place at the right time, you deserve credit for recognizing an opportunity and acting on it. If you wouldn’t dream of not taking responsibility for your failures, then step up and take responsibility for your achievements.
  • Be appreciative: As I said, a compliment is a gift. You wouldn’t put down or reject a gift from a friend; treat compliments the same way.
  • Be honest and optimistic about the future. Not pointing out your weaknesses doesn’t mean you can’t be honest about what lays ahead. But a simple “We still have to do x, y, and z but it’s good to see we’re on the right track” will suffice. Don’t make someone waste their effort paying a compliment by telling them how the thing they’re praising is probably doomed to fail in the long run.
  • Recognize your contribution. You may not be the only one who deserves to be complimented on a job well-done, and it’s fine to say so, but remember that you’re a part of your group’s success, too. Don’t say “Well, Hassan and LaShawna deserve all the credit”; instead say “Thanks, I’m sure Hassan and LaShawna will appreciate hearing that, too.”
  • Follow up. If applicable, offer to involve the person giving you a compliment in your success. “Thanks, Maria. I wonder if you’d like to help us out by offering some feedback on…”
  • Be gracious. Giving a compliment isn’t always easy. When someone does offer you one, accept it easily and gracefully. Pay one back, if merited. Let people know that you appreciate themfor appreciating you.

You don’t have to be a cocky, arrogant, son-of-a-you-know-what to take a compliment well (but it helps — kidding!) just a reasonably well-balanced, self-assured person. The good news is that mastering the art of receiving compliments helps make you into a more well-balanced, self-assured person — which, in turn, will earn you more compliments. Let the warm fuzzies begin!

Special Bonus Tip: Something nice that someone says about you is a “compliment”; something that goes nicely with something else “complements” it. A compliment makes you feel good, as in “I feel good now.”

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