Several years ago I was visiting with friends and we were all getting ready to go out for the evening. One of my friends came into the living room and I complimented her on how pretty she looked. Her immediate, almost unconscious response was, “You’re blind.” I was shocked. It felt like she threw this little compliment back in my face. Her response made the whole exchange a negative experience. I remember thinking that I would have been better off saying nothing. But I couldn’t leave it there. I stopped the conversation and turned it into a training session. I said, “Let’s rewind this exchange and try it again. This time all I want you to say is, ‘Thank you.’” I repeated my compliment word for word and she dutifully responded with a quiet “thank you.”
Going from “you’re blind” to “thank you” changed everything – for both of us. Her “thank you” acknowledged the compliment and brought a smile to her face. Whether she agreed with my compliment or not remained private. For me, her “thank you” restored some sense of order and strengthened the bond between us – and encouraged me to try this “giving-compliments-thing” again.
A wise man once said, “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.”I was reminded of this exchange when we studied Shelly Gable’s work in our Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program. Her research suggests that supporting partners when good things happen is as important in building relationships as supporting them when bad things happen. She noticed that couples with strong relationships had a particular way of responding to each other when good things happen. She called this productive and positive response an “active and constructive” response.
Active and constructive responses are characterized by sincere enthusiasm for the good event being described, by being excited and happy for the other person and by showing genuine interest in the good event being described.[i]
Gable created a matrix to illustrate various kinds of responses. Her research held that responding in an active and constructive way is a great way to build and to strengthen a relationship. Here’s an example of responses to the good news of a promotion:
I think a compliment is good news. While people may be very willing and able to respond to someone else’s good news (like a promotion or a raise in pay) in an active and constructive way, many people revert to active and destructive responses when the good news is about them – in the form of a compliment. Why is that? Why is it difficult to receive a compliment with enthusiasm, excitement, happiness, and with genuine interest?
When I offered my friend a compliment (a good thing), her “you’re blind” response was an active and destructive one. We were both wounded a little. Just saying, “thank you” may be more passive than active, but it is constructive and it is a very good start.
With this in mind, I have two assignments. First, pay attention to how you respond when others share their good news with you. Be careful with this news. Treat it gently but with sincerity and enthusiasm. Second, bite your tongue and just say, “thank you” when someone offers you a compliment. Don’t discount it. Don’t explain it away. Don’t ignore it. Just accept it with a “thank you.” In so doing, you will be giving a gift back to the giver and you’ll rejoice together.
Modified portion of the Perceived Responses to Capitalization Attempts Scale. From
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal andinterpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 238-245.