Conversation Feedback Leadership Personal Branding

How to receive a compliment without being awkward

No matter what we do in life, we all crave approval. Regardless of whether it concerns our work, hobbies, personal features or even our physique. Appreciation makes us feel good about ourselves. It also makes us perform better in the area we’re praised for. That’s because compliments activate the same region of the brain as money does, that is the striatum [1]. After we hear a compliment we try harder because we want it more!

But accepting and receiving a compliment can be quite a challenge for many of us. Have you ever experienced any awkwardness on the recipient’s part while giving a compliment? Maybe that person felt a bit uneasy? Perhaps the person’s reaction after your sincere compliment was embarrassment and a shy walkout in silence with their eyes on the floor? It’s probably not the reaction you were expecting.

It’s high time you learned how to receive a compliment with grace so as not to make a giver feel uncomfortable.

Say ‘thank you’

You should treat a compliment like a gift. It means that you need to accept it. If you get a birthday gift, you probably don’t smile awkwardly and walk away in silence, but rather say ‘thank you’ with a polite smile. You should do the same with compliments. 

Don’t be scared to say ‘thank you’ when someone says your shirt looks great or you’ve achieved spectacular results at work. You can also express your gratitude with an additional phrase, such as “I appreciate that” or “That’s very kind of you”.

Follow-up a bit

It’s advisable to add a few words after you give a generic “thank you”. Do it just for sake of keeping a conversation going. Let’s say someone told a software engineer that a feature he implemented was amazing. After he responds with a “thank you”, you could continue:

follow-up after thank you

The best approach is to share something positive. Something that won’t make the other person feel awkward, but will create a pleasant atmosphere. Such a small detail can make a conversation a bit easier for the both of you.

Don’t reject compliments

One of the worst things that often occurs is rejecting a compliment. A person tells you that you look great and you immediately fire with “Oh no, I haven’t slept well so…”. It can also happen in work-related situations. For instance, your manager says “You did a great job!” and you reply with “Well, I messed up a couple of times, I should have done better”. 

What’s the point of negating compliments? Is it because you want seem modest? Keep in mind that rejecting a compliment is not humility. Such behavior is especially common among people with low self-esteem who have difficulty accepting and capitalizing on compliments [2].

“A lot of times we simply have been mistaught what modesty or humility really is, and it doesn’t have anything to do with receiving positive feedback or a compliment”

Denise Dudley

Negating a response puts the person who gives you a compliment in an uncomfortable position. You can even be considered ungrateful or insecure. Don’t create an unnecessarily awkward atmosphere. Resist the urge to criticize yourself.

Don’t ignore compliments

I also came across another type of situation, that is where a recipient seemed unable to recognize a compliment, behaving like there was no compliment at all! Either the person didn’t hear it or pretended it wasn’t actually a compliment. 

don't ignore compliments

Doesn’t it sound a bit rude? Like you don’t care about the other person’s opinion. Keep in mind that giving a compliment requires some effort from a giver and again it’s a like a gift. Someone wants to make you happy so you shouldn’t reject it. Don’t pretend a compliment doesn’t happen because you will be labeled big-headed and aloof.

Share the credit

That’s particularly important if you’re a leader or a manager. Sometimes a compliment should go to a whole team, not only to you. Let’s say a powerful executive publicly recognizes that you help the company succeed. If it’s a team effort, spread the compliment around. Give credit where credit is due.

share the credit

Remember that not acknowledging your teammates is the quickest way to losing friends and support within the team. 

Mind your body language

If your body language doesn’t match your words, you may send the wrong message to your compliment giver. Watch out for anything that can give the impression that you’re not interested. Depending on your personal body language it can be crossing your arms or avoiding eye contact. 

Demonstrate with your body that you’re happily engaged in a conversation. Otherwise, your next compliment giver can feel weird if he sees that you’re uncomfortable. Steady eye contact and a smile do the trick. Remember that smiling, even without saying anything, says a lot about your emotions. Your body language should indicate that you’re pleased. That’s the best response to a compliment.

Summing up

Compliments are a mix of linguistic and cultural elements. They vary across different cultures and societies. But the thing they all have in common is politeness. A person who gives a compliment cares about making another person happy. Compliments make the speaker and the listener satisfied. And such politeness is one of the ways you can improve communication between people [3]. 

That’s why I recommend not only giving compliments but also accepting them with grace and, of course, without making your compliment giver feel awkward.


[1] Sugawara, Sho & Tanaka, Satoshi & Okazaki, Shuntaro & Watanabe, Katsumi & Sadato, Norihiro. (2012). Social Rewards Enhance Offline Improvements in Motor Skill. PloS one. 7. e48174. 10.1371/journal.pone.0048174.

[2] Kille, David & Eibach, Richard & Wood, Joanne & Holmes, John. (2016). Who Can’t Take a Compliment? The Role of Construal Level and Self-Esteem in Accepting Positive Feedback from Close Others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 68. 10.1016/j.jesp.2016.05.003.

[3] Janet Holmes. (1995). Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman.