There is growing evidence that compliments benefit both the giver and the receiver, but that people give fewer compliments than they probably should. In my last piece for Fast Company, I focused on some factors that might make people shy away from giving compliments. Now, I want to turn to what you should do if somebody compliments you.
It is hard for many people to take a compliment. There are a few reasons for that difficulty. The first is that most people do not want to be seen as vain or boastful. So, when someone compliments you, it creates a mild embarrassment in which the recipient feels like accepting the compliment will make them seem as if they are publicly acknowledging their own greatness—which isn’t far from bragging. In addition, many people have reservations about their own performance, and so they may not feel as though they deserve the compliment they have received.
Because of this discomfort, people develop a number of deflection strategies for compliments. One is to deny the thing they have been complimented for (“No, I’m not really that great a writer.”). A second is to minimize the achievement they have been complimented for (“Honestly, it wasn’t that big a task.”). A third is to point to all of the other people responsible for the achievement (“Really, all the credit should go to Sarah, who carried the load for this work.”)
The first two of these strategies create a problem. A compliment should make you feel good, and it should also make the complimenter feel good. If you minimize or completely deny the achievement, then it leads you to associate getting a compliment with negative self-talk, which can ultimately bring down your mood. It also makes the complimenter feel like they have to do more work to make their point understood, which reduces the joy they get from giving the compliment.
That means that when someone compliments you—regardless of your instincts—you should start by acknowledging the compliment. A simple, “Thank you, I really appreciate that,” is good enough. That expression of appreciation lets the complimenter know that they were understood.
Next, you have to stifle the urge to minimize the achievement. If you have done something that another person takes the time to compliment, enjoy the moment. Regardless of what you think you have accomplished or what your level of skill or talent may be, someone else was impressed by that.
Remember that you can often be your own sharpest critic. There is always someone out there who is more talented or skilled than you are at almost anything. So, it is natural to feel like you don’t measure up to someone who is more of an expert than you. But, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t quite good at what you do. Receiving compliments gracefully is a way of reminding yourself how far you have come.
Finally, if you are in a position of leadership or a member of a great team, it’s fine to acknowledge the help of other people in reaching your goals. When someone compliments you for an achievement, after you thank them, you can list a few of the key people who also pitched in to make it happen. That is particularly valuable when you are a leader. Great leaders spread the credit for significant achievements (and shoulder the blame for the errors).