Updated Wed, Jul 17, 2013 8:36 am
I grew up believing the proper way to respond to a compliment was with modesty. If somebody said, "What a pretty dress," my response was something like, "Oh, this cheap old thing?"
When I was a young lawyer, if I worked long hours on a tough memo and a partner said, "You did a nice job," I was inclined to answer in the same way. I'd belittle my efforts by saying something like, "No big deal" or, "It was really a team effort."
My typical response was wrong in so many ways. For one thing, it reframed the partner's assessment of the quality of my work. Instead of reading my mind and understanding that I'd struggled hard to produce a first class draft, the partner would tend to take me at my word and recall the project as not a big deal.
Beyond that, when I deflected a compliment I drained the energy from what should have been a positive moment. When the partner offered kind words, I made him feel a little bit bad, instead of a little better. And I denied myself the benefits which a compliment can bring.
It wasn't until I became a manager myself that I understood how the compliment exchange should go. To your brain, receiving a compliment is a reward, like a little cash, and research suggests that you perform even better after accepting a reward. So your first step after hearing a compliment is to pause for an instant, and get the full value of the moment.
When you do open your mouth to respond, you have two goals: to reinforce the positive evaluation that led to the compliment, and at the same time to make the giver feel good. Here are suggestions for accepting compliments on your work:
- Say "thanks." Begin your response by saying "thank you." And sound like you mean it. Even if a little voice in your head says, "I don't deserve it," or, "He doesn't mean it," ignore your doubt. Smile and express appreciation for the compliment.
- Show your pleasure at a job well done. It's not immodest to acknowledge satisfaction with good work. After saying "thanks," you might add a brief phrase like, "I'm proud of this one," or "I'm so pleased that I could help.”
- Share the credit. Although you don't want to deny your contribution, you don't want to hog the limelight, either. If it truly was a team effort, share the praise. Add a simple comment like, "I couldn't have done it without Tom – he was terrific."
- Return the compliment. You can prolong the nice moment by offering a compliment in return. Say something like, "Your good advice made such a difference." But this only works if your words are sincere. Fake praise can be just another way of deflecting a compliment.
- Keep it short. When the compliment exchange goes on too long it can become uncomfortable. If the flow of praise feels unending, it's OK to turn it off with a light comment like, "Aw shucks. That's enough now. You're making me blush."
- Manage your "impostor syndrome." Sometimes high achievers find it extremely difficult to hear praise, believing they don't really deserve it. If you feel like an imposter, and not really good enough to deserve such kind words, ignore your discomfort and accept the compliment gracefully. Then try these easy techniques for learning to be comfortable when your work gets rave reviews.
Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.