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Owning your success: why it’s important to learn how to accept a compliment

Vice President Biden swears in Secretary of St...

Vice President Biden swears in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Joining Secretary Clinton is her husband, former President Bill Clinton, their daughter Chelsea Clinton, and Secretary Clinton's mother Dorothy Rodham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read an interview with Secretary Clinton and Andrea Mitchell today that made me think about how apparently uncomfortable even the most admirable of women can be with their own success, at times.

I think there are a number of things that women do to undermine themselves, when really, they only wish to appear humble.  For many of us, this is part of our cultural upbringing.  We were taught to be self-deprecating and humble. When I say this, of course I am speaking in generalizations to make a point and not saying that every woman is guilty of downplaying her success.

During the interview, Secretary Clinton deflected the conversation about being a role model by saying she did not think of herself that way, in spite of the fact, as Andrea Mitchell mentioned, that many people do think of her that way.  I think what was authentic was at least she admitted that it was true.  But I don’t think she had to add that she didn’t think of herself that way.  I’m not saying it didn’t sound genuine.  I’m just saying for a person of her standing and caliber, maybe humility isn’t called for each time.  Maybe she could just own it, since someone else is saying it.

But I think what was even more telling was this exchange, at the end of the interview:

SECRETARY CLINTON: Always good to see you, Andrea. You are an inspiration, believe me.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Hardly, but thank you for saying that.

Now when one of the most powerful people in the world says you are an inspiration, you do not disagree with them!  First of all, disagreeing with any compliment tends to discount the idea of the other person.  It’s like hitting the balloon of their compliment  with a bb gun.  Secondly, Andrea Mitchell has had an illustrious career in journalism spanning four decades, beginning when there weren’t many women journalists.  So, she can authentically own the fact that she is an inspiration to many.  Both of these women are trail-blazers, and yet, both seem uncomfortable with owning it.  And why is that?

Just try to imagine someone saying to President Clinton — you are a role model — and him saying, well, I don’t think of myself that way.  It’s harder to imagine a man saying that, isn’t it?

So you might say, well, what’s wrong with a little humility?  Nothing really.  Only there is still a pretty large salary disparity, across the board, for women and men.  I don’t see how we can expect male managers and colleagues to value our work and contributions when we fail to accept credit deserved.

As a woman business owner, I think it’s important to both own my mistakes and my successes.  If we’re so good at owning our mistakes, I think we must be equally good at owning our successes, which can be done in a non-obnoxious way.

So how do we accept the professional and personal compliments that come our way?  One approach is to accept the compliment with thanks and a smile, and then let it go at that.  Don’t qualify it or excuse it or downplay it.  This can take practice!  If you feel tempted to say something else, just mentally count to five or ten.

Another approach would be to accept it and add a little context, especially if you are trying to stay on message during an interview.

For example, if someone compliments you on something specific (the best kinds of compliments), you might say “Thank you.  We worked very hard for 10 months on that project and it’s satisfying to see the results now.”

In the case of Andrea Mitchell, maybe she was thrown by receiving the compliment, but if she had a do-over opportunity, I think she might say something like, “Thank you, coming from you I consider that a very high compliment, indeed.”

Want to increase your compliment-accepting skills?  Try giving more compliments, and watch how other people react.  Make sure they focus on one specific thing, and that they are brief, and free of superlatives.  Do they make you feel good about what you said when they graciously say thank you?  How does it make you feel when they down-play the compliment?

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