Responding With Grace: The art of learning to take a complement

Last month I was fortunate enough to be asked to present at the 40th anniversary celebrations for the Healthcare Infection Society, I gave a talk that was pretty OK and seemed to land with those in the room. In it I spoke about the impact that the society had made on my career with the funding they had awarded, I also spoke about the impact and learning that had happened on those occasions they hadn’t awarded me funding – my CV of failure. For the rest of the day lovely people came up and spoke to me about how much they’d enjoyed the presentation, especially the section on failure. I spent most of the day a little thrown by it, not just because I didn’t feel worthy of the response but because it dawned on me that I just don’t know how to take a compliment. Those conversations felt like a social contract I had entered into without fully understanding the requirements and I just didn’t know what to say or how to appropriately respond.

This has led me to reflect on why I was so out of my depth. Was it the setting? When I give academic presentations at conferences I am usually prepped for questions and critique as a result of what I am saying – therefore compliments are usually less on my mind. People are often very kind about this blog and other things I post on twitter and other forms of social media, but when responding to those comments a nice gif is easily available and so the terms of the social contract are more easily fulfilled. So setting certainly plays a part, but even so the fact that I have reached the ripe age of 42 and I am so unskilled in this means I need to step up my game.

Why is it hard to just say thank you

Arrogance is not a good look and vanity is a deadly sin (I’m not religious but it’s all kind of embedded in society and subconscious lessons learnt) therefore it can be really hard to judge what is required as part of the social contract when someone gives you a compliment. The obvious choices are to say thank you – but that shuts down further conversation if not done correctly, or to dismiss it as not something you are not worthy of – which is hard to do without coming off as rude. It feels like a paradox that compliments are something I want to regularly give out but I am not sure that societal rules enable me to navigate appropriately when I receive them.

You’d think that these concepts of arrogance and vanity in terms of acknowledging success were old hat and not something present in todays workplaces, but I’ll never forget being told not to put the first award I won out on my desk as ‘my success makes other people feel uncomfortable’. When responding to unexpected compliments it can almost feel like a trap, be gracious but not too responsive, accept the compliment but don’t take it to heart. I am in no way saying that any of the wonderful people who spoke to me after my session were anything other than lovely and genuine, but more reflecting on the way that society and societal rules can make it difficult to be fully present in the moment.

The horror of the compliment circle

The worst example of compliment horror I’ve ever experienced was as part of a leadership programme. We met every 3 months for 2 days, at some point during the 2 days we were all made to sit in a circle and offer a compliment to someone else in the circle, I found it tortuous. The giving out of the compliments was easy enough but the receiving them I found deeply uncomfortable. The forced nature of the setting meant there was nothing spontaneous in either the giving or the receiving. I was filled with so much horror that these moments were coming that I would do homework of prepping my list for all 29 others before I went. It was like being picked for team sports if you were selected last because no one could easily think of a compliment for you. It wasn’t really acceptable either to use a compliment that someone had already used for someone else and so you were forced to be either highly superficial or super inventive. For an exercise that was supposed to bring us together and support us getting to know one another it succeeded, but not for the reasons the instructors anticipated, it brought us together in our hatred of the activity. I’m sure this type of activity lands differently in different societal or cultural environments, but for that group of 30 women it was universally an unpleasant and challenging experience.

NB – In all honesty the compliment circle was not the most horrendous part of this course, at some point I will share the horrors of being forced to communicate my leadership challenges through the medium of interpretative dance or the dream journaling where I basically recounted plotlines from TV or the movies just so I had something to say.

Once it’s out there it’s no longer yours to control

I was speaking to the ever wise and wonderful Nicola Baldwin the other day and mentioned the fact that I was thinking about this and she said ‘what you need to understand is that once you have put it out into the world the response to (whatever it is) is no longer yours to control, you’ve given it a life of it’s own’. Nicola as a playwright obviously has a lot of experience with this and it was really interesting to hear her thoughts. Once you have written the paper, given the talk or shared the blog your duty really might lie in bearing witness to the response rather than controlling it. Fundamentally, at the point you have put it out there it is no longer about you, it is about the response of others.

The other thing that this conversation sparked in me was some thinking about how I would react if the reaction was not positive. Would I find a negative reaction difficult to deal with? Would I think about it differently? Interestingly I think that in fact negative reactions might be easier to manage as I psychologically already move to the place where it is acknowledged that it is about how the person received it not how I intended it to be received. Although I don’t enjoy criticism I suspect that I have much greater resilience in dealing with failure than I have in dealing with responses to success. Making the mental shift to knowing that neither of these situations are really about you makes it easier to have strategies to deal with both.

So how should I respond?

So having done some thinking I’ve come up what I know are some really obvious phrases that most of you already use – I acknowledge that this is not going to be news to many people but just thinking about it has helped me.

Options are to say thank you and leave it at that:

  • “Thank you! You made my day!”
  • “Thank you! It means a lot to me.”
  • “Much obliged!”
  • “That’s very kind of you.”

You can also use it (after the thank you) as an opportunity to follow up and offer more info/develop the relationship further:

  • Use it as an opportunity to acknowledge others contributions
  • Ask questions to gain insight so you can improve things further
  • Get to understand the person better – understand what resonated with them and why

Knowing that for good or ill it’s about being in the moment and having some of the pressure removed to ‘do it right’ by knowing that bearing witness to the reaction of others might be all that is required of me is a tremendous relief. As someone who, you may have noticed, has a tendency to over think, strategies are important to me. So next time someone comes up to me and says something nice, instead of responding in fear and wanting to run to the bathroom and hide, I intend to say ‘thank you that’s made my day’ and follow up with a question that builds the relationship. In the end after all it is not really about me.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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