How to give and receive compliments…and why both are important

A friend recently said to me, “There are three things we can do to change the world:
1) Be nicer to each other,
2) Give money to the organizations we support and believe in, and
3) Get more involved in politics by voting and calling our representatives.”

Politics are pretty divisive right now, so I’ll encourage you to act on #2 & #3, then give you an idea for how to implement #1.

Here are two things you can do to make the world better that fall into action item #1:

  • Give compliments honestly, authentically, and often.
  • Accept compliments simply and graciously.

Even in the most competitive work environments, compliments are an important part of recognition for hard work and effort, regardless of outcomes. In fact, if you want your colleagues to keep trying, keep pushing the envelope, failing fast (as they say), compliments can be a key to success.

(*Did #1 blow your mind? I’ve always wanted to use click bait in a title and this is the first time I’ve been able to work it in. I feel so accomplished right now!)

Sound simple? It is…not.

What are you supposed to say when someone gives you a compliment?

The answer is super simple. Say, “Thank you.”

Please don’t be like these ladies…

Although funny, Amy Schumer’s skit hits a nerve: women have a hard time accepting compliments.

American sociolinguist Robert Herbert published a study about how men and women give and react to compliments.

The study found that man-to-man compliments were accepted 40% of the time.

Man-to-woman compliments were accepted 68% of the time.

However, woman-to-woman compliments were accepted a measly 22% of the time.

When a compliment is not accepted with an acknowledgement (e.g. “Thank you”), it falls into one of these most common responses:

  • Minimizing the compliment: In the video, one woman responds to a compliment about her hair color with, “I tried to look like Kate Hudson but ended up looking like a Golden Retriever’s dingleberry.” This one minimizes the compliment AND hits high on the gross response chart. More common responses would include, “Oh, it’s nothing.” Or, “It’s no big deal.”
  • Giving credit to someone else: “I have a great team/colleague/partner/husband/wife who did all the work.” or, “Oh, this old dress? I got it on super sale for $3 at Goodwill!”
  • Giving a compliment in return: “Oh, but what about you? You over-achiever! I loved that article you published last week.” Or “No, YOU look amazing!” Or, “Stop, YOU’RE the one who did that huge/awesome/amazing thing!”

Why do we do this?
Why can’t we just hear a compliment and say, “Thank you”?

It’s complicated.

Some studies say that biological competitiveness for the best mate is the underlying reason why women can’t accept compliments from one another. It may seem at odds in the workplace, but it stems from being non-threatening, “I’m not a threat, I’m not here to steal your biologically superior mate, I’m just here to be your friendly friend.”

There’s also a very difficult balancing act women are required to walk, appearing both confident yet humble. Too confident and other women resent you. Too humble and they walk all over you. It often feels impossible.

Yet accepting compliments is a critical part of succeeding at work (and in life). If your manager compliments your work, does she/he want to hear your self-deprecating comments? Will that make you appear to be a confident team member, ready to take on new challenges? The obvious answer is no.

When I managed a group of hard working professionals, I considered my compliments as official work recognition, not to be minimized and not to encourage a compliment in return.

But not everyone agrees. Some people think that you’re conceited when you graciously accept a compliment.

There’s an app for that
And so, yes, there’s an app for that.

The app Brighten lets you send anonymous compliments to people you know. The receiver can snap a photo of their reaction and send it to you. Their reaction disappears after one second. Other than the anonymous part, it’s intended to simulate real life. You get a nice compliment, you smile, and then the moment is gone.

I heard the creator Austin Kevitch interviewed on NPR. He got the idea from a friend’s family practice of putting out a “compliment box” with note cards so that family members could compliment one another on a regular basis. I LOVE this idea! How cool is it to sit down at a family dinner and read out the compliments that have collected over the week, reminding you of moments when you did something well?

TRY THIS: Put a compliment box on your kitchen table and have everyone write compliments a few times a week, then read them aloud at a family dinner. The compliments can be heartfelt or silly, it’s up to you.

How to give a good compliment
I often rely on Google to tell me if I’m onto a valid topic or at least one that people search. I searched for “how to give a good compliment” and found that, yes, people do need instructions.

In addition to the obvious things like “don’t just make something up” (“I love your orange blouse” to a person who is not wearing an orange blouse; or “your hair looks great today” to the person in a baseball cap), here are a few important and not so obvious things to remember:

  • Compliment people on their successes rather than just their looks: Most compliments to women are related to the way they look. Be original by complimenting us on our achievements or something specific and behavioral that you’ve observed. “That speech you made to the school was funny and insightful” or “Your presentation to the team was interesting. I especially liked the part you included from our customers” is more thoughtful than “You look pretty in that color.”
  • Compliment people on their effort rather than the outcome: There’s been quite a bit of research in the area of growth vs. fixed mindsets. A growth mindset says that when you try harder, you get better at things. A fixed mindset believes that you are born with a certain amount of smarts no matter what you do. Parents are told to recognize efforts instead of smarts. Instead of saying, “You did so well, you are so smart,” which makes kids feel as if they did well ONLY because they are naturally smart, say, “You did so well, you studied so hard and it paid off.” When kids are encouraged to have a growth mindset, they feel as if trying harder or trying different approaches can lead to better outcomes even if the first time doesn’t work. 
Turns out that the same is true for adults. Complimenting your direct reports or colleagues for their effort encourages a growth mindset, which leads to trying more new things and drives more innovation in your company.
  • Compliment people on things you notice in the moment: I often notice something appealing about someone’s appearance and tell them so right away. But I don’t always take the time to do so after I hear someone speak or see a performance. Doing this makes public speaking or entertaining all worthwhile. Speakers generally love it when they have touched your life, challenged the way you think or inspired you to take action. Share it with them!

Why compliments are worthwhile
Compliments have a two-fold happiness effect:
1) Giving compliments makes YOU happier, and
2) Receiving compliments makes the other person happier

We spend a lot of time second-guessing ourselves, even at our most successful times. A thoughtful and sincere compliment can give someone just the little boost they need to keep going. I recently ran a test of a course I’m developing. Afterwards, the participants sent me encouragement. It wasn’t perfect but it was still great. Knowing that they see potential in the course gave me a boost to keep going.

TRY THIS: Practice giving and receiving compliments

  • Give someone an honest compliment that is specific and behavioral. Focus on the behavior itself, like a skill or effort rather than their appearance.
  • Next time someone compliments you, say “Thank you.” If you have to follow that up with a non-acceptance response, try to pause after the “thank you” so you can at least feel what it’s like to appreciate a compliment.

Don’t get the false impression that I’m perfect at this.  Just this morning my carpool partner complimented my new haircut. I was still in my PJs and my hair was literally sticking out in every odd direction, but she gave me a specific compliment, “I like the length, it looks great on your face.” And what did I do? I minimized her compliment with, “Oh dear, I have major bed head!” After she left, I texted her to say how ridiculous it is that I’m writing a blog post on this very topic and I still did it unconsciously. Then I texted, “Thank you for the nice compliment on my hair cut.”

So don’t give up. You can do this.


But wait…there’s more!

A little more about compliments just for fun
My favorite mini series of all time was the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, starring the dark and handsomely brooding Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (this wet shirt scene would have been downright scandalous for Jane Austen’s time).

This video has almost 5M views on YouTube, which should be plenty of motivation for you to watch the series if you haven’t seen it.

A funny example (that Jane Austen, so sardonic!) from Pride and Prejudice† shows you how NOT to give compliments.

This speech is by Mr. Collins, the cousin destined to inherit Mr. Bennett’s estate because in 1813 his five daughters are unable, by British law, to inherit his property (British women were finally allowed to have complete personal control over all of their property, inherited or earned, in 1882).

Mr. Collins quite prides himself for his ability to compliment the ladies.

Here’s a snippet from the book:
Mr. Collins: You may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments, which are always acceptable to ladies.
Mr. Bennet: How happy for you, Mr. Collins, to possess a talent for flattering with such… delicacy.
Elizabeth Bennet: Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?
Mr. Collins: They arise chiefly from what is passing of the time. And though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.
Elizabeth Bennet: Oh, believe me, no one would suspect your manners to be rehearsed.

To be clear, Mr. Collins is NOT admired for his practice of coming up with and rehearsing compliments in advance. However, given the large number of results I got on a Google search on the topic, having compliments all ready to go when the opportunity arises is also a “thing.”

I will NOT judge you if you check out “100 compliments ready to deliver right this minute.” Whatever works, my friends!

I’ll leave you with this advice, whether you practice in advance or not…
Don’t compliment people for the sake of ingratiating yourself.

Do it to make you happier and to make your friends and colleagues happier. Spread a little cheer in the world as a contrast to the doom and gloom we’re reading about in the news every day!


Why Women Can’t Accept Compliments – The science behind why females seem to put themselves down

The 100 Greatest Movie Compliments (NOTE: this full of inappropriate language and R-rated movie scenes, so don’t watch it at work or in front of your kids)

†Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Chapter 14

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3 thoughts on “How to give and receive compliments…and why both are important

  1. Pingback: How A Negative Performance Review And StrengthsFinder Changed My Life: Communication Talent – Lead Through Strengths

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