Accept the compliment and shut up

Summary: The healthiest way of accepting compliments is The Assertive Way, in which you don’t diminish yourself and you don’t oversell your accomplishments. You acknowledge your effort, learn from your success and grow.


– That’s a great project you’ve done there, good job!
– Thanks, but it wasn’t really that hard and I actually didn’t do that well, either. It was pretty much all luck.

– Wow, that was really quick! Thanks!
– Yeah it was, wasn’t it? That’s how I work – quickly & efficiently. It was actually pretty difficult, but I am skilled in completing those kinds of tasks and normally do better than others. What I did was… [5 minutes later] … anyway, thanks for noticing!

– Nice job out there.
– Thank you so, so much – I really appreciate it, you don’t know what it means to me, being praised by you. I am so grateful for your kind words!

– Hey, that was an amazing presentation!
– Thank you, I appreciate it, as I did put a lot of work into it. What did you particularly like about it and what would you say could be improved?

I remember one workshop that I participated in ages ago. It was focused on not taking things personally, being able to deflect any insults that might come your way and behaving in an assertive, confident and adult way when the interactions with other people become tense (in a positive or negative way). One of the exercises we did stuck with me to date: you were to go to the front of the group and stand there with everybody looking at you. In the first part of it, everybody would throw verbal crap at you – insult you & your behaviour, point out your physical ‘flaws’, play on your insecurities and generally put you through ‘hell’ for a few minutes. The second part of the exercise consisted of the same people complimenting the same things they just criticised in the most obscene way.

Would you care to guess which part of the exercise was more difficult for the person at the front of the group?

If you think it was the first bit, then you’re completely wrong. Even though people were being absolutely destroyed in front of everyone in a vicious and insulting way, the subjects normally reacted with laugh and a ‘bring it on’ + ‘is that all you got?’ attitude. That was an amazing experience, as from that point on, I pretty much became immune to insults, seeing that they are pretty ridiculous especially if thrown at you at a high volume. The second part of that exercise brought out the real insecurities in people as most of us stopped being cocky and the ‘bring it on’ approach morphed into cringing and ‘stop it’ attitude. I recall that one girl who was laughing out loud when people insulted her, but as soon as we had started saying how beautiful she was and complimenting her in various ways, she started blushing, cringing and wanted nothing more than get out of that situation and hide.

What is your reaction to people giving you compliments? What’s the first urge, what’s your immediate response? As shown in the examples at the beginning of this post, I think there are three main ways of how people respond to praise:

  • The Self-Diminishing Way

That’s my first reaction to compliments and I’m fighting with it (I think it might have something to do with my introvert tendencies). If someone praises you and you go out of your way to prove to them how undeserving of that praise you actually are, then three things are most likely happening:

a) You are telling the other person that her perception is wrong, that they misjudged you and that they have low standards (what a great relationship-building messages you’re sending there, right?)
b) By diminishing your effort & results you are setting them up for not appreciating the work you put in in the mid- and long-term (therefore soon you’ll be thinking “I’m working so hard, why isn’t anybody noticing it?” Well, that’s because you told them not to)
c) You’re belittling your own effort in your own eyes, which is not helpful from the energetic perspective – you know you’ve put in a lot of work into getting that result, yet you’re vocally denying it? That has internal implications – there is an imminent conflict there that will be resolved somehow and unless you retake the responsibility and re-apply respect for yourself and your work, the resolution might not be a highly beneficial one for you.

I remember one more example for point b). Years ago I worked with an amazing manager – she was a true leader, confident and funny, yet commanding respect (not fear!), gaining everybody’s trust instantly and not letting anyone down. To this day, I am still full of respect for her and think of her when leading teams. She had been doing one small thing all the time, though – whenever she had done something for someone and the other person said “thanks, great work”, she would say “no problem” or “that was nothing”. That was her automatic response, an immediate subconscious reaction. When I pointed it out to her and suggested using a more assertive way instead of a self-diminishing, she immediately noticed a change, as people started to appreciate her hard work more!

  • The Overwhelming / Overselling Way

This way of reacting to compliments is in my opinion probably more towards the extrovert end of the spectrum. In this situation, the person being complimented goes on and on about why he / she deserved that compliment, describing in detail what it took to achieve the praised result. There’s nothing wrong with telling a bit of a story about the process of accomplishing a goal – just make sure you’re considering the following points:

a) Who are you actually trying to convince that this result took a lot of work? If the other person isn’t too interested in it and hasn’t even asked about it, maybe you’re the one not believing in your achievement and are trying to sell your successes to yourself? Something worth keeping in mind
b) If this is your default way of addressing compliments, you might paradoxically stop people from praising you as often as they did, as they might start thinking “every time I say something nice to him, he gives me a detailed breakdown of all of the actions he ever took without me asking about it – and my time is too valuable for this, I can’t get those 10 minutes back”. That might be a cynical way of looking at it, but I guarantee that at least half of the people you’re doing it to will think like that (introverts’ reaction?)
c) By commanding the whole interaction with your story, you are preventing any feedback from happening. If you only talk and don’t listen & don’t explore what you could’ve done differently, you will not be moving forward in your development.

  • The Sounds-Like-Fake-Gratitude Way

This one is pretty tricky. If you put in a lot of work and someone compliments you, your reaction might be filled with honest gratitude, especially if you’re not used to being praised. But watch out – I know I did suffer from this and that was all subconscious until someone pointed out to me that me being very vocal (especially in emails) about how grateful I was and how much the compliment meant to me actually could sound dishonest, artificial. So the next time you send someone a “thank you” email, have a critical look at it – are you not overdoing it? How do you imagine the other person’s reaction? Will they think “aww, how nice” or rather “a simple ‘thanks, much appreciated’ would have done, is he being ironic?”.

  • The Assertive Way

You might’ve already figured out that I very much prefer the fourth way – I call it The Assertive Way. It’s the golden mean of reacting to compliments. I suggest the structure used in the example at the beginning:

a) Firstly, say thank you. This way you are acknowledging the other person and – hey, what an insight – you’re being nice
b) Secondly, give yourself some praise. You’ve put a lot of effort into this, came up on top and you deserve to be proud of yourself. Don’t overdo it, though, and also don’t diminish yourself – humility is a virtue if you don’t make it work against you
c) Lastly – ask for feedback. Ask for the opinion on things the other person liked the most and on points that they think you could do something about. This way, you’re showing them respect by showcasing that you value their opinion and also you’re also getting to learn from the interaction. If you don’t ask, you won’t know – and if you won’t know, you won’t be able to grow and build on the feedback. And that is an unforgivable mistake to me.

That’s my suggestion. Accept the compliment, acknowledge your efforts, ask for feedback and shut up. Don’t ramble on about how great you did, don’t undermine yourself by attributing most of the success to luck or easiness of the project – just shut up, listen and allow yourself to grow.

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