I've attended many retirement events for advisers, honoring them for their work with their clients through the years. They are always wonderful occasions, but I'm often surprised how hard it seems for many honorees to gracefully accept the positive thoughts and comments being shared about them. You might hear:
• "It was really nothing," minimizing their contributions.
• "You have the team to thank for that — not me," deflecting the praise to the team.
• "If we could do it over, we would have made an even bigger impact," implying their work wasn't good enough.
It seems when it comes to the practice of receiving praise, many of us just don't know what to do.
Why is it so hard to accept a compliment?
Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar, as who hasn't fumbled when reacting to sincere praise and recognition? You might see this behavior in your employees, your colleagues, and even yourself. Now, some might say, "So what?" After all, many of us were taught to be modest and humble. But in fact, the inability to accept a compliment can be a sign of serious esteem issues or a reluctance to believe good things about ourselves.
Doing a bit of research, I learned that praising someone is like giving a gift. When we receive a gift, we usually try to acknowledge the giver. But this often does not happen when we receive verbal compliments, recognition, or praise. Of course, accepting gratitude can be a slippery slope. No one likes the individual who basks in the praise but fails to recognize the contributions of others. Nonetheless, learning to accept recognition with grace is important, whether one is at the beginning or the end of a career.
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There is a plethora of literature on this subject — and it all pretty much says the same thing and gives the same simple advice. But I especially like a Harvard Business Review article titled, "What to Do When Praise Makes You Uncomfortable," by Mark Goulston. He notes that the modesty and humility that have been ingrained in us are important to maintain. But genuinely acknowledging recognition is a gift back to the person who offered it in the first place. Further, accepting this gift opens us to others and lets them "in."
Put yourself in someone else's shoes
Often, the act of giving a compliment is more about the giver than the receiver. As such, when we struggle to accept a compliment or a word of thanks, it can be hurtful to the person who offered a sincere compliment. Think about it: Have you ever given recognition to someone only to have that person not even look up from her cell phone? Have you mustered up the courage to tell someone how grateful you are for something you felt was important to your career or your life only to have him dismiss it as, "Oh, it was nothing"?
"You're welcome" or "no problem" may be adequate responses for daily, casual interactions. But when it comes to milestone events or more heartfelt recognition where the giver has something important he or she wants to authentically tell you, why not give the courtesy of your eyes and ears to acknowledge what that person is saying.
As with so many things in life, there is a best practice for accepting the recognition of others.
To start, look into the giver's eyes and say "thank you." The eye-to-eye contact is important. It's sad that the electronic devices planted in our palms have led to a lack of both eye contact and personal connection.
Naturally, it is fitting to also acknowledge a team or others who have supported you.
Remember that accepting recognition yourself is one sign of good mental health. The person who gives praise wants to communicate something that he or she feels deeply about. Will you be ready to accept it?
Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network.