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  • Writer's pictureGeorgia Nielsen

Building confidence: a guide to accepting compliments (& why they matter)

Updated: Mar 9

Women (in particular) are exceptionally good at dismissing compliments and chalking their success up to luck. From birth, we've been socially conditioned to be modest, unassuming, and take up less space. In the face of compliments we offer up responses like:

“Oh, no, it wasn’t me. The credit goes to the team.”

“Really? I didn’t think the presentation went well, I thought they all looked bored.”

"Yours was so much better, you should have won."

"I was just lucky."

Responses that sound innocent, are actually doing you a lot of harm.

Cartoon titled "How to Accept a Compliment". Two women are talking one says "You're such a great presenter" the other replies "not really". In the second part the first woman says the same thing and the second says "thank you".

Making space for the negative self-talk

In her book No Just Lucky Jamila Rizvi explains:

Negativity bias means we give more psychological weight to our negative experiences than our positive ones. We remember the bad and gloss over the good. Our brains react so strongly to negative emotions that you need at least five positive encounters to counterbalance a single negative one.

When you dismiss a compliment you're not taking the time to truly hear or absorb the great things that are said about you. It starves your inner critic of the positive experiences it needs to stay at bay; allowing negative self-talk and bias to take the stage.

Missing the secrets to your future success

When you don't clock a compliment, or you chalk it up to luck, you also miss the opportunity to study your success.

You don't get the chance to pinpoint the talents you used or how you used them to succeed. Putting you at a disadvantage in achieving future success.

Contributing to incorrect views

Your assumed modesty is also contributing to society's entrenched perceptions that women are less talented than men. Jamila says:

When women attribute their enormous achievements to luck, they discount other, far more relevant factors. Factors like hard work honed skills and natural talent. This is the true source of their success. They weren't just lucky. They were really good at their jobs.

In a study conducted by researchers at Columbia Business School, women were chosen to lead a group 33 per cent less often than men, including when their abilities were comparable. They found that leaders were chosen based on their perceived readiness to lead; the more confident a candidate was, the more the group perceived them to have leadership potential.

What's worse is that in the study (and we can extrapolate, real life), group success was compromised by unnecessary risks that had come about from choosing confidence over competence.

Structural inequalities, such as the gender pay gap and an under-representation of women in leadership roles already send the message that women are less valued at work than men. We don't need to help them on their way.

Rejecting a gift

A compliment is a gift. And just like a physical present, giving one brings joy to the giver. By dismissing their gift or disagreeing with them you're dismissing thier opinion and rejecting their gift.

How-to guide: accepting a compliment

So, next time a compliment comes your way, accept it! Show the giver you appreciate their opinion. Use it to correct your negative bias. And, use it as data to help determine how to achieve future success.

Here’s my guide to getting comfortable with accepting compliments, and what to do with them once you do:

  1. Take a deep breath as a compliment is heading your way.

  2. Resist the urge to jump in or dismiss it.

  3. Take a moment to absorb what is said.

  4. Respond with grace e.g.: “Thank you, that means a lot”, “Thank you, I really enjoyed working with you” or “Thank you, I worked hard on that, I’m glad it made an impact”.

  5. When you finish your convo, write the compliment down! And, think about the talents you used to receive it (so you can use them again, and again, and again …)

BONUS TIP: keep all your compliments in one place so you can come back to them when you're experiencing self-doubt, prepping for an interview or having a crap day!


Women sharing their talents in a CliftonStrengths workshop

Developing your talents

Need help discovering what makes you so great? Check out our strengths-based coaching. Using the CliftonStrengths® assessment as a guide, we’ll help you uncover your natural talents and learn strategies to apply them to achieve future success.


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