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Why do compliments and positive feedback disarm us?

When we think about feedback our attention can jump straight to the perils of giving and receiving constructive feedback. A less discussed aspect of feedback often raised by workshop participants is how hard it can be to accept any kind of compliment, praise or positive feedback. For these participants, which can sometimes be the majority of the room, the experience of being complimented is very uncomfortable.

Recently in a workshop I had a pair of attendees practicing giving and receiving feedback on a client meeting they had the previous day. The first participant, Jason*, had a meaningful, real compliment to share with Abi* about that meeting. Jason began by sincerely framing and then delivering some very positive feedback about how Abi’s skills had strengthened the clients confidence and helped to win an additional piece of work. Jason did a terrific job of giving specific positive, and complimentary feedback.

How Abi responded, was I think typical of many of us who struggle to actually receive a compliment. As Jason gave her the feedback, Abi’s posture slowly closed over, she seemed to become smaller, her face fell and she struggled to maintain eye contact. After Jason had finished speaking Abi was silent. Abi stopped the practice and said to the room, “That’s what happens to me when I receive positive feedback. I can’t find anything to say.”

Many of us find receiving compliments, praise and positive feedback more uncomfortable than receiving constructive or critical feedback

This isn’t a learned response of someone who thinks that to deflect, diminish or reject a compliment is a demonstration of humility, which it is not by the way. Accepting compliments and positive feedback is entirely aligned with high humility. As the discussion continued, Abi could only acknowledge that she did well in the client meeting provided there was a ‘but.’ After the but she needed to hear a long list of additional improvements she could make. After the BUT she would feel better, because, she could ignore the compliment and focus on the areas to improve.

Why do we do this? What is behind this tendency to ignore, flick or pass over the compliment and focus on the BUT? Why do many of us struggle to acknowledge, internalise and accept positive feedback about ourselves?

The individual reasons our participants discuss often to fall into one, or a mixture of three categories:

1) The compliment has to compete with the voice of our internal judge. The judge is the voice in our head that drives us to do better, be better, attain perfection – critical, judgemental, unceasing – it is unfortunately a powerfully driving force in many of our internal lives. When we hear positive feedback the judge may tell us it’s a lie, so we reject it. We don’t challenge the internal judge because our confidence has a subordinate relationship to it.

2) We may feel that by softening to accept compliments we will ‘get slack’, ‘fall apart’, or somehow become less effective. Unconsciously we believe that to succeed we must push ourselves, and that if we stop pushing, even for a moment, we will fall into failure. Unconsciously we may see some part of our success as tenuous, and some part of ourselves as an enemy who will let us down without the push.

3) We may carry a barely recognised belief that someone who pays us a compliment want’s something from us. We may believe that we owe them something in return, so we feel uncomfortable as we perceive the compliment comes with strings attached.

Usually these beliefs have nothing to do with reality. What is really happening is that a colleague or manager is seeing good work and they are acknowledging the qualities that underpin that contribution. They are well intentioned, fact based observations of a competent person at work – the compliment is a gift.

Whatever our reasoning, by deflecting or rejecting compliments we miss out on so much:

  1. We may diminish our capacity to learn from what we have been complimented on, and potentially the ability to teach it to others.
  2. Although it may feel comfortable to dismiss or reject feedback we may be unintentionally stifling our personal learning cycle and the broader learning cycle of our team or organisation.
  3. By not cultivating and developing the skills to receive compliments we are robbing ourselves of feeling and knowing our own value – this pattern robs us experiencing the gratitude of others.
  4. Dismissing positive feedback is a pattern that limits us to acknowledging a small version of ourselves. Over a career of 10, 15 or 20 years this pattern creates a ton of emotional wear and tear.

If these patterns have a grip on you, these are some of the tips we discuss to help shift them:

  1. Kick the judge out of the drivers seat of your confidence. Change BUT to AND – expand your thinking beyond the voice of the judge. See yourself as someone who is both, worthy of compliments AND someone who can see ways to improve. Each of us is always both of these.
  2. The sense of being our own worst enemy means we hold onto a lot of tension, and we feel that it’s the tension rather than skill or hard work that is holding us together. We believe that if we let go of the tension we will fall apart, into a heap, turn into a puddle. The tension is simply a pattern – not a helpful one, and certainly one we don’t need. What sustains your success is not ‘the push’, in fact, push will wear you down. Your success is held in place by hard work and skill, and that is what others see and are probably complimenting you on. When you feel yourself becoming uncomfortable with positive feedback take a few deep abdominal breaths, and reflect on ways you have earned this compliment through hard work and well developed skills.
  3. A few years ago someone payed me a beautiful compliment that struck me so deeply I actually couldn’t look at her for a few days afterwards. When I reflected on what was happening I realised that I on some level I felt like I owed her something, a debt, in return for the compliment, that I didn’t know how to repay. There is no debt, when a person compliments us they expect nothing in return, and we don’t owe them anything. Remind yourself that there are no strings attached – stay away from creating a story about the compliment – it’s just a compliment.
  4. When someone pays you a compliment, try to just say ‘thank you’- nothing else is needed to honour the situation.

The longest relationship we have in our life is with ourselvesthere is no longer relationship we can have

Who wants to keep themselves small or treat themselves as the enemy for 80, 90 or 100 years? There is an alternative – we can choose a life-building relationship with ourselves. Break the pattern – change your thinking, make room for AND. Try stepping into really receiving and integrating good news about yourself.

I passionately deliver workshops on values and strengths such as Gratitude, Game – changing Goals and The Achievement Advantage into organisations. My goal is to demonstrate the vast benefits these values and strengths bring to us as people, to our effectiveness as employees and leaders and to the organisations we work for. To find out about all our workshops, keynotes and coaching visit www.theamplifygroup.com.au

* Names changed

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