It’s all a matter of give-and-take
Some people are generous in dishing out compliments and praise but find it harder to be on the receiving end. Other people complain of never receiving compliments or praise and they are also the ones less likely to give them. However, if we view the whole subject of praise-giving as a part of communication then it falls under the same rules. It’s a matter of give-and-take. For the social engine to run smoothly, you have to be comfortable and confident at both: the give and the take. In this post, we’ll look at how to give and receive compliment and praise. And, the main takeaway point is summarized in the short video below.
The Gifts of Compliments and Praise
The ability to accept praise and compliments graciously is not usually thought of as a skill. Many people feel uncomfortable doing so. Consider your own reactions to compliments or praise.
- Argue with the person and demand they take it back?
- Argue for the contrary evidence, listing your faults and failings?
- Laugh in embarrassment and say ‘it was nothing’?
- Ignore the praise/compliment altogether?
- Look embarrassed, grunt or mumble an acknowledgement, but do not make eye contact?
- Say thanks, hurriedly or sharply, and quickly move the conversation on?
- Make eye contact and accept graciously (smile and say thank you)?
Which option most closely matches your reaction?
If you answered (1) to (6) response, instead consider that it wasn’t a compliment or praise, but that someone gave you a gift. Now I’m guessing you don’t snatch it out of their hand and throw it in the bin saying ‘Well that’s a load of old rubbish’. Treating compliments and praise as gifts, how has your answer changed?
Gracious acceptance of praise and compliments
It’s socially appropriate to accept graciously. You don’t have to believe the compliment. Self-esteem is nothing but an evaluation. Just by acknowledging positive feedback you begin to entertain the possibility that maybe there is something positive to comment on. It begins to change your perception of your self.
Accepting praise: It is just a question of practice?
Difficulty in accepting compliments and praise is not always about confidence and esteem. It could just as easily be a lack of practice. If you were raised in an environment where compliments were rare, then you don’t gain the experience of accepting them. Therefore you just need to catch up on lost time and practice more now.
Try this exercise: Praise yourself in the mirror at the end of a good day or as you have successes. Look yourself in the eye and say ‘Well done’ or ‘you did well today’. If you cringe it’s a sure sign that you need more practice doing it (and accepting compliments in general). Continue doing it until it doesn’t make you cringe. Afterwards, continue doing it anyway.
Why do people offer compliments?
Compliments are good conversation starters and help to build rapport. They help to establish reciprocal liking (‘I like you because you like me’). If you say something nice then people will think you are a nice person and are more likely to be nice in return. It doesn’t always work but that’s the guiding principle.
Compliments and praise also act as positive reinforcement. That is, they can be a form of reward and encouragement. So they acknowledge a particular behaviour as something that’s positive and as something that should be repeated. Psychological research tells us that rewards are more effective than punishments in shaping behaviour. Saying ‘thank you’ is also a reinforcer. If people feel appreciated they are more likely to repeat whatever received the thanks.
How to pay a compliment
I remember my first advice to someone to use a compliment. A school friend really fancied this girl and didn’t know how to approach her. I suggested that he casually pay her a compliment. I think our definitions of casual were very different. He waited for her to come out of the toilets and then leapt out, made her jump, and blurted out ‘I like your frock!’. I suppose given the circumstances, it could have been worse, Needless to say, that love remained unrequited.
If you are giving a compliment, there are a number of basic principles:
- Most important of all, it should be genuine (that includes not ‘fishing for compliments’, that is giving a compliment to get a compliment)
- If it’s an ice-breaking type compliment keep it simple and keep it small. It’s better to say to someone ‘I like your brooch’ rather than some over-blown, phoney and a quite transparent attempt to ingratiate yourself. People will accept small compliments more readily than grand displays. The aim is to give someone a little uplift, not embarrass the hell out of them.
- Don’t follow one compliment after another, ‘and I like your hair, and I like your bag, and I like your shoes’ and so on. Yes, we get the message, you like lots of things. It sounds obvious but people often fall into this trap when trying to impress someone. If you are attracted to someone or want them to like you, the stakes are higher, stress levels increase and perspective goes out of the window. You don’t want people to grow weary of saying thankyou.
Compliments and praise and stress relief and confidence building
Compliments and praise have other social functions. According to the daily hassles and uplift theory of stress, rather than being caused by critical life events, stress is the result of those petty niggles and hassles that stack up during the day. The antidote is to create more daily uplifts during the day so that the uplifts cancel out the hassles. So by paying compliments and giving praise, you could be helping to reduce people’s stress levels. You can ‘make someone’s day’. You also get the feel-good feeling of doing a kind deed.
In my approach to confidence, we gain it by passing it on. Stepping outside of yourself to give to others does have an esteem boosting effect. In turn, people will perceive you as more confident if you are the one instilling confidence. What goes around, comes around. It’s what I call confidence-karma.
So there you have all the basics: treat compliments and praise as gifts, practice regularly, be genuine, don’t go for overkill, keep it simple, enjoy the positive knock-on effects.
About the author
Dr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.
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Post Updated: 14 November 2019
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One of the best ways to accept a compliment I have found is to say “Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say” It instantly returns the good feelings to them. The funny thing is a lot of people don’t know how to accept compliments, so they will do one of those 1-6 that you listed “Well anyone would have noticed/said, it’s so obvious.”
Thanks for your comment Scott. I was a late bloomer in accepting compliments. 😉 Firmly in the 3 to 6 camp.
I’ll add that there are few things more frustrating than a person giving you a compliment and then immediately fishing for one about themselves. This screams insecurity and it’s infuriating.
Yes, I should add that to the list of dos and don’ts. Thanks for your comment
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Have always had and still have problems not being embarassed by praise and compliments,especially at work.My dad always said,”you should not expect praise for dong your job.” Raised in a military family,praise was rare. When it does come I find it difficult to handle gracefully. I usually just nod or shrug. Plus phrases like,”good job” just feel phoney and insincere to me. You like my work? Fine,give me a raise!
I think some people confuse praise with flattery. Praise is just positive feedback. It just takes practice to distinguish between the two. In my job as a coach, there is a strong element of genuine praise to help clients focus on and value their skills and strengths. That way we build on what’s already there. So many people undervalue what they do until someone points it out.