Career Advice

How to Zip It and Take a Compliment

Fun fact about me: I am absolutely terrible at taking compliments, especially when it pertains to my career. Seriously, just ask my boss — one time, after telling me what a great job I did, I got so nervous that I just grabbed my nearby water bottle and started chugging from it. I know what you’re thinking and no, I’m not sure why that seemed like a natural reaction either. As SpongeBob SquarePants’ pal Patrick Star once said, “the inner machinations of my mind are an enigma.”

I do take some comfort in the fact that I am far from alone in this, though. Women, in particular, are frequent offenders of shutting down compliments. “We don’t want to look braggardly, too proud, too pleased with ourselves, or something strange because that’s [often] what our mother’s taught us!” says Executive Coach Debra Benton.

It’s easy to think that this is just a small personal quirk that needs no correction, but if left unchecked, it really can impact your relationships. Failing to accept a compliment can sound insecure at best or at worst, insulting. Not a big deal if it’s a chance encounter with a stranger on the street, but much more important when the person complimenting you is your colleague or manager. So, what’s the fix? Benton outlined a few tips for us.

1. Don’t Contradict the Complimenter

“Anything that implies the person is wrong/uninformed/stupid” is the wrong way to respond to a compliment, Benton says, as is “anything that makes it [sound] like [you] don’t know [why] they would say such a thing.”

You might hear this and think, “Of course I would never respond to a compliment by calling somebody stupid!” But it doesn’t have to be as explicit as saying it to come across that way. Take this example:

“If someone says, ‘Nice dress,’ and you respond with, ‘Oh, this old thing. Geesh, got it on sale at TJMaxx,’ you are figuratively ‘slapping them in the face’ and suggesting they don’t have good taste,” Benton says. When you do this, “you are dinging their self-esteem; putting them down in a way.”

2. Flip the Compliment Back at Them

Going the exact opposite direction can also be damaging, though — saying something like “thanks, I know!” can come off as sounding full of yourself. Instead of doing this, Benton recommends turning the compliment back on the complimenter.

“Make your response about the other person’s good taste, good judgement, good decision, etc,” Benton shares. “I wear hats a lot… [people] will stop me on the street, at the airport, etc. and say, ‘I like your hat.’  And my response is always, ‘You have good taste.’ I know it makes their day. Anyway, why not make someone feel good if they’ve gone out of their way to compliment?”

3. If Nothing Else, Say Thanks

While the example above is the ideal way to respond to a compliment, for the incredibly bashful, it may still feel too far out of their comfort zone. If this is the case, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple.

“A ‘thank you’ with a smile is the basic recommendation for the shy/humble (or the braggart/arrogant, for that matter),” Benton says.

It may feel awkward at first, but remember: practice makes perfect.

4. Be Generous With Your Own Compliments

Along those lines, the more often that you give compliments to others, the more comfortable you will likely be accepting the ones that others give you. Gauge the reactions of your friends and colleagues to see how they make you feel, making note of when you think somebody accepts a compliment particularly well so you can emulate them the next time around. Besides, it’s great for morale building in general.

“Many times we ’think’ a compliment but don’t say it and it’s a wasted thought,” says Benton. “Say it. It is not being a suck-up to tell someone, ‘You did a good job on that’, or ‘Nice tie’, or ‘You’re full of good cheer today’.”  

Hint — that means your boss, too! Sometimes, “they need it more than you and I,” she says.

“Give it a try,” Benton encourages. “Experience the good feeling it gives you.”