Accepting a compliment seems like a small thing in the context of the many, many things I could have done better if I knew more when I was younger, but I’m a big believer of small changes reaping big rewards. It’s also a topic that’s front of mind for me as I work on modeling constructive behavior to my daughter, who pays closer attention to what I do than what I say.

I know this isn’t only a female issue, but I’m going to speak to it with that lens as it’s what I know. Society has a way of sending not just mixed, but unhelpful messages to girls. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. Properly accepting a compliment is one example. Women constantly get the message that we must always be modest, and accepting a compliment makes us appear arrogant or cocky. So instead, we:

•             Deny: “I wish that were true” or the equivalent of “This old thing?” to a comment on your outfit.   

•             Downplay: “I didn’t do that well. (Goes into list of things I could have done better).”

•             Deflect: “Actually, (insert name) is much better at (whatever) than me.”

But why does agreeing with someone make you cocky? I’d like to tell my former self that by giving in to those ridiculous reflexes, I was not only refusing the praise, I was negating it altogether. With my awkward attempts to be humble, I was broadcasting a message that I was timid and lacked confidence, and that the person trying to give the compliment was just plain wrong. This reflex probably topped off at irritating in my personal life, but absolutely hurt me in the workplace. “Former self,” I would say, “Knock it off. Here comes some advice.”

•             Just say thank you! It’s simple, appropriate, and easy to do, even when tongue-tied.

•             If you want to say more, focus on things such as acknowledging the work behind the achievement. But be careful not to hand the whole thing back or to someone else.       

•             Share the compliment. Almost any accomplishment is in some way a team effort. Making sure those that had a part share in your success is a fantastic way to strengthen relationships.

I’m not done with my former self yet. Former self, you also need to check your body language, as it can contradict your words. I’ve worked in male-dominated fields for many years. I’ve had hundreds of wonderful co-workers. But unfortunately, I’ve been in handful of awful situations that made me want to make myself small and unnoticed. Younger Kathleen, don’t let the exception, the few, steal your opportunity to shine. Stand up straighter, uncross those arms, make eye contact, and assume those kudos are deserved and the intentions behind them are pure.

Graciously accepting a compliment is an easy way to demonstrate self-assurance, and, as a woman I admire once told me, to own your success. I’ve worked hard throughout my career, and I’m good at what I do. When people notice and offer praise, it’s deserved. Acknowledging that does not make me a narcissist. It shows I can appreciate a win and sends the message that I’m capable of more.

While I can’t really go back and influence Kathleen of the past, I can focus on doing this right today and going forward. Hopefully, my daughter—who is the closest I’ll get to my younger self—will notice and grow up feeling comfortable receiving the praise I know she will deserve. To me, that would be even better than a time machine.

  • Sharing the compliment with the team is the best advice.  You can't go wrong with team.

  • I always answer a compliment with "Thank you.  I put a lot of effort into that and I'm pleased that it was appreciated".  Replace I with we if it was a team effort.  Works even better if the compliment was sarcastic because it makes the other person feel like a tool.

  • on the flip side of this excellent advice to your younger self, is how the person giving the compliment feels. There are many reasons people give compliments; to ingratiate themselves (think first date!), as an ice breaker to conversation, to deliberately instil self-esteem in someone and because you damned well deserved it.

    That person themselves will benefit from acceptance and acknowledgement of giving out a compliment.

  • Speaking as a man who when phoning his wife will answer in less than half the calls placed mostly due to the simple fact that women's clothes do not have pockets and therefore phones get left on tables, chairs and anywhere that is not directly attached to her body.

  • My wife pointed out a few years ago that I almost always reply to "Thanks" with "No problem" or "Not a big deal".  She argued that these responses trivialize my contributions to the company.  It took almost 6 months to retrain myself to just say "You're welcome".