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Receiving Compliments

Ever receive a compliment and find yourself uncomfortable or embarrassed? You might have had thoughts like: "They are just manipulating me." "They are lying." "I didn't do that good, I should have done better."

Most compliments contain words that imply judgment and evaluation. This can make them very difficult to hear. Someone tells you who you are or how well you did something. For example, "You are such a great musician." Or "You played an incredible game."

Compliment like these can be tricky for a few reasons.  One, they put the other person in the position of your judge. Their words put you in a box – "the great musician", "the relaxed person", "the so organized person" etc. As a multidimensional ever-changing being, you don't like being in a box. Other parts of you squirm knowing that there are other times when you are not "a great musician".

Two, compliments can trigger your inner comparing voice. The comparing voice brings up your ideal and compares you to it. So if someone says "you are a great musician", you compare yourself to a better musician or a higher standard in music and feel crappy.

Three, compliments can rise to the internal critic that says, "I'm good if…" This is dangerous territory because it can hijack your connection to your innate worth (goodness, divinity, beauty, jewel, etc.). When your sense of self-worth depends on how well you perform or judgments from yourself or others, you are in for a roller coaster ride of emotions, not to mention a continuous battle to prove your worth.

Feedback from others is important, don't get me wrong. It is important for you to know if what you are doing is meeting needs or not, because one of your most important needs is to contribute.  And here is where you can turn compliments around. Instead of hearing compliments listed in the ways above, you can hear feedback about how you have contributed.

With different ears on, you can translate "you are a great musician" to hearing the person say "listening to you play I feel really happy because important needs of mine are met." In giving you a compliment, the person is really trying to celebrate with you that their needs were met by something you did.

Hearing a compliment in this way you win on two counts. One you can connect to and celebrate with the person giving you the compliment. Two, you can also celebrate that your need for contribution was met.

Here's the catch. Putting on different ears and translating a compliment is not always easy. It might take a little work on your end. You might have to ask some questions and make some guesses to get to the observation (what specific thing you did that met the other's need), feeling, need, and request. Here's an example of what I have done when I received a compliment from a student:

Student: "This was a great class. You are really an excellent teacher."

Me: "Oh, great! What did you like about the class?"

Student: "Just the whole class was great."

Me: "Do you have any specifics about what worked for you?"

Student: "I really liked using the need cards. It helped understand the process better."

Me: "Yea, sounds like a real shift in learning happened for you there and you feel excited about that." (I am restating the need here to see if I am hearing them and I am guessing the feeling.)

Student: "Yea, well, I really feel relieved that I am finally getting this stuff. Now I am going to try this with my mom." (Connecting clearly with her feeling and need, the student then moved to a request of herself.)

This week, notice when you give or receive a compliment. If you don't translate the compliment to observation, feelings, needs, and requests, in the moment, write it down so you can follow up on it later.

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6 Responses

  1. Sep 18, 2013

    LaShelle, I love how you focus here on our choices in how we hear, rather than on the choices in how we speak. Both so important, but I think the former is under-emphasized in much of the work. A sweet satisfaction for my love of understanding. Thanks! ~ *T*

  2. Sep 18, 2013

    This is very useful - I like having the concrete example of how to translate compliments. I notice I have much stronger reactions to some kinds of compliments than others. One of the hardest ones for me these days is when people say "You look like you've lost weight!" or "You look great! Have you lost weight?" I never know how to respond in the moment, and whether I have actively been trying to lose weight or not, I almost always ends up having a reactive eating binge of some sort after hearing such a "compliment." I'm still trying to sort out why that one is so hard to hear -- but maybe it's because it feels like a disguised judgement of my previous weight?

  3. Sep 19, 2013

    Hi Tasha,

    Yea, I can easily see how someone "complimenting" you about your weight loss would be triggering. There is an implied message that less weight is better. To me it seems that this idea is so pervasive in our culture that people sometimes forget to question its validity.

  4. Sep 19, 2013

    Thank you for these insights. It's good to see this in another way, to understand what could be happening under the surface of a giving/receiving compliment exchange. Thanks!

  5. Sep 20, 2013
    Ed Braun

    I love the clarity of this gem. It can be so easy to hear a compliment as a personal judgment or an evaluation of self-worth. It is so important to translate them.

    I think there are a couple of additional ways that might help with translating these kind of comments.

    When someone gives me a compliment (like "you are an awesome teacher"), I try to remember that the comment is really about the person who expressed it - not me. It is what (s)he thinks. It is not about who I am.

    Sometimes, comments like those are really an expression of appreciation for a strategy that met a need. So, "You are an awesome teacher" really means something like: "I really learned something today." or "That lesson was effective." This lets me know that a student's need for understanding was met. That can be helpful feedback (about the strategy).

    Hearing compliments in this way can help meet a need for people to express appreciation and it helps me fully experience my need for contribution - knowing that the strategy worked for you.

  6. Sep 20, 2013

    Hi Ed and Noelle,

    Thank you so much for your feedback!

Comments? Questions? I love hearing from you. Reply below or send me an email.

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