We are prepared for insults, but compliments leave us baffled. Mason Cooley
A few months ago, I was given a beautiful gift. It came from someone I call friend and mentor, a gent I met ten years ago now and whom I have not yet seen in person since, Jim Hornickel. Jim is one of those people who thinks before he speaks and what he says always seems to hit the mark. He’s a delight.
This particular gift came about at the end of one of our regular calls as we were signing off. Jim said something along the lines of he always enjoyed our calls and I had brightened his day. I know why I can’t remember exactly what he said and that’s because my ears tuned into the fact that a kind compliment was in the offing, and I stopped listening. My inner dialogue switched on and I prepared what I was going to say back… which was akin to me picking up a big tennis racket and batting his sentiment of me as far away from me as possible.
What happened next was so toe curlingly awkward, I remember distinctly turning red; I can still feel the heat of my embarrassment. Rather than us simply moving to goodbye and hanging up, as I assumed we would, Jim interrupted me with the words “do you know what you’ve just done?”. Cue my little inner critters entering immediate defcon 3, the sirens start, the panic ensues … we have offended someone. This is bad – actually it’s the worst of the worst. As a person who has worked, and who still works, so hard on my natural people pleasing tendencies, believing to have offended someone remains an Achilles heel. It sets off immediate physical reactions – turning an unattractive shade – crimson, green, ashen grey depending, a distinctive hot glow and occasional nausea.
Of course, I didn’t know what I had done. Jim enlightened me.
Jim had tried to give me a gift – a compliment. And by batting it off, I had rejected it. Imagine he asked, how that made him feel. Is there a defcon 4? I feel I may have found it then. Fortunately, as I think I mentioned, Jim is a delight, so normal (ish) service resumed for the inner critters eventually.
It was such a powerful lesson for me, and it has stayed with me, vividly, since. Indeed, if any of my clients are reading this, you may be familiar with this story – because I have shared it as often as I can when I can see a compliment or acknowledgment flying back through the air to me, as client after client similarly bats off these gifts.
There’s a moment, I know, where we can feel chastised, but the true gift here is the gift of a different perspective. Seeing that compliment, that acknowledgement, that thank you, as a present, with a bow on the top, being proffered to us by another person. Arms outstretched, smiling, wanting to give us this lovely thing. We have a choice; we can bat it back, reject it, say oh no not me, I’m not worth that. We can leave that person standing with a beautiful gift in their hands and refuse to take it, or we can smile, we can say thank you, we can accept their kindness, and by doing so forge a deeper connection.
I know the power of acknowledgement, I have had a compliments book for years, where I record kindnesses that have been said to and about me. It helps on the more difficult days to have something to remind me that my mind is sometimes really nasty to me and will not tell me the truth. I can look back at the words of others to bolster my confidence. And yet, even having this strategy, I was blind to the fact that, in the moment, I was stonewalling these jewels over and over again. Sometimes it takes another person courageous enough to speak the uncomfortable truth, to brave the horrific awkwardness, to hold up the mirror to us and dare to ask, ‘do you know what you just did?’.
So, what is the best way to handle a compliment, how can we navigate our potential embarrassment when someone acknowledges us, our achievements, our skills? Jim has reminded me that to smile and say thank you, is really all it needs.
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