I thought this one would be easy, but I was wrong. Try it for yourself.
Imagine someone just paid you a compliment on something you did, perhaps a presentation at work or something else that evoked a “Nice job!”
What would you do?
- Wonder if the person was being sarcastic.
- Reject it. “Oh it was nothing.”
- Smile awkwardly.
- Graciously accept the compliment.
You might think the answer is obvious. But it has taken me decades to get to a comfortable answer, and that’s only after working through all of the possible responses.
The M&Ms Incident
I was about 5 years old when this happened, maybe younger. It was such a trivial incident and yet it stuck with me.
My mother, older siblings, and I visited a neighbor up the block. Her home seemed so neat and orderly. To my mind they were rich, though it was just a one-bedroom home in the Bronx. The woman had M&Ms in a glass bowl, something extraordinary for me because a) in my house the M&Ms would be devoured immediately, and b) we would inevitably break the glass bowl.
She held the bowl out to me. “Would you like some?” My mother gave me a look and shook her head. Afterwards, she explained (or this is how I remember it), that even if people offered something, I wasn’t supposed to take it. My young mind interpreted it as somehow impolite to accept what was offered. Perhaps the person didn’t really mean it, or I didn’t deserve it, or both.
Of course, it’s nice to receive compliments. And yet, for most of my life, each compliment is like that bowl of M&Ms being offered to me. I look at it awkwardly, wondering whether I’m allowed to accept it.
“You look nice today!”
I much prefer to give compliments than to receive them. “You look nice today!” “What a great outfit!” I thought offering such genuine praise was an unambiguously nice thing to do. One day, though, a woman I knew responded with, “So I don’t look so nice on the other days?”
I never expected that. I guess she focused on the word “today” more than “nice” and interpreted it as a kind of insult. It taught me two lessons: to be more thoughtful of how I offer a compliment, and to realize that other people, like me, may not be comfortable when they get one.
I still offer positive feedback to people, but I try and practice empathy before I do it. How would I receive this if I were them? It makes me more mindful of what I say and how I say it.
How accepting a gift can be a contribution
Last week, I gave a talk at a conference and there were well over a thousand people in the audience. As I walked off stage, I wasn’t sure how it went. I had a sense of how well I did or didn’t do, but now how it was received. Then, some people came up and congratulated me, and over the course of the day different people would come up to me and say something nice about my presentation.
I thought about this appreciation test. My instinct was to respond with disbelief or some other form of rejection. “Really?” “Oh, it wasn’t my best effort.”
This time, though, I practiced just accepting it. Sometimes it was as simple as “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Sometimes we would start a conversation and exchange contact information, or even get to know each other a bit.
If a person had gone through the trouble of walking up to me to say something nice, then the least I could do in return would be to graciously accept it. Now, instead of responding with my usual self-defenses, I practice reciprocating with my attention, appreciation, and vulnerability. As the write Stephen Donaldson has said, “In accepting the gift, you honor the giver.”