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.
Images: Shelly Gable, Gable’s matrix.
Thank you, Doug. ACR is literally one of my favorite concepts from last year. I remember how we learned it through practice in Karen’s coaching class. And I remember how we started using it outside of class (and sometimes still do):
“Hi! This great thing happened! I just got a new client! I’m just calling to ACR with you!”
I think we use it like a verb. : ).
One of the persistent doubts I have about ACR is that those with low affect, dealing with depression and those kinds of low moods might struggle for the sincerity part. Should they “fake it til they make it”?
In other words, is it better to give a saccharine compliment or to say nothing at all?
Jeff: Thanks for your comment. I am definately in the “fake it ’til you make it” camp. Years ago I came across a skill development model that maybe applies here. In any skill (including giving active and constructive responses)you are initially unconsciously incompetent – meaning you are unaware of the skill at all. Then you become consciously incompetent – meaning that you become aware or intersted in developing the skill – and your first attempts may come across “sacchariney”. As you practice you develop a conscious competence in that skill – you still have to think about it but your practice makes you more and more natural. Finally, you arrive at the unconscious competency stage where the skill is part of who you are – like riding a bike. I would hate for people to avoid trying active and constructive responding for fear of not doing it with some sincerity. Thanks, Doug
Hi Doug –
First, happy belated 50th! I’ve gone from the birthday reminder lady to the lady who can’t remember anything this year! 🙂
But I love this article because you were able to take a look at ACR in a new way, and one that I find many people struggle with. In fact, I’m writing this right now in a short break between two clients — one male and one female — who both struggle with accepting compliments. I often have to force them to stop our conversations and notice what they did with some praise I offered, and how bad it felt to have it dismissed so quickly by them. Often, these folks need to learn how to “savor” good things in new ways, and can be helped with conscious work around listing their blessings and achievements on a daily basis, and then going through them with a person who is authentic with them.
This also reminds me of the old Dale Carnegie story in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” about how one of the kindest things we can do for each other is to notice something to compliment in others, and to make it a sincere, honest comment without any BS. It feels great to give compliments like that, but you point out how important it is for them to be received in the spirit they are offered.
Great reminder. In the last week, I gave flowers to someone for being a great teacher on Mother’s Day and her response was “you shouldn’t have done that”. Then to another, I expressed admiration of the nice brooch she wore on and her response was “oh I can’t even remember where I got this”. To both, like you I had said ‘just say thank you’ and I received whispered thank-you’s offered rather sheepishly
Where does the aversion or careful avoidant response stem from? Is it modesty? Is the intention to deflect attention?
I used to think it was an Asian thing. My elders used to respond with ‘we have such an ugly child’ when anyone remarked on how cute any child in the family was – lest the ‘spirits’ became jealous and cause harm to the child. As we grew up, ‘what a nice dress’ evoked ‘it’s a cheap one’ from us too. On the other hand, responding to another’s good fortune tend to be effusive albeit oftimes superficially and with a hint of envy.
Is ACR mood-dependent or situational? Do we have a particular way of responding to different people? These self observations may add to our self-understanding.
I will do the two assignments to answer my own questions 🙂
Sulynn and Doug,
I once heard it explained as a female thing. That is, women strive to be on the same level. If you compliment me (+1 to me), then I either have to compliment you (+1 to you) or disparage myself (-1 to me) to stay even. The speaker described this as a difficulty between men and women in the work environment. Men accept their +1’s without feeling a need to even things out. Women feel dissatisfied – aren’t they stuck up! Women even things out which makes men feel dissatisfied and uncomfortable — what does it say about my judgment that you have to disparage the thing I complimented?
I don’t know if there is any empirical research behind this — I’ll have to look. I found it very interesting to contemplate.
Doug, thanks for bringing up the skill development sequence in this context. It gave me some insight into something I have been struggling with: how to help folks start actually applying positive psychology.
I give talks on positive psychology, but wonder whether people will act! From your comment, I realized that, especially with experienced professionals, they’ve gotten very comfortable being unconsciously competent. Their first reaction at the suggestion they might need to be consciously incompetent is, “No!” For lawyers, unfortunately, this often means we deploy the skills in which we are unconsciously competent (adversarial advocacy, zero-sum negotiations) in situations where they are inappropriate and ineffective and then wonder why we don’t get better results. But, I think we also resist even admitting that we might need to master another set of skills. We don’t want to experience concious incompetence, so we have no chance of moving on to any form of competence!
Again, thanks for the insight! (And, if anyone has feedback on whether I’m on the right track here, I’d appreciate it!)
Dave: Glad that little skill development model was helpful. I have used it a lot but I can’t remember where it came from. If anyone recognizes it and can provide a reference, that would be great. It seems to make sense to me on an intuitive level and I think it also gives people license to try new things understanding that it will feel uncomforable at first. All the best, Doug
Dave: I found a website that has some more information on the conscious / competence learning model.
I really enjoyed this article! I am taking a positive psychology class right now and being able to have real world experiences to explain a concept is incredibly helpful! I have noticed that it has recently become harder for people to participate in active and constructive responding, which I think has caused a dramatic change in the quality of the friendships and other relationships these days. I hope that by using active constructive responding, others will model their behavior after what they see and how they see it impact themselves and others. Everyone could benefit from putting this concept to good use!
I wonder what active constructive responding to a compliment might be –
“Thank you, that really lifted my spirits” [i.e. what was the complimenting person’s motive that you are trying to enhance by meeting this person where he or she is and promoting it further]
This is a great article.
And it very much reminds me of my favourite Quote that was first shown to me in the Movie Coach Carter but I believe that is was said be Nelson Mandela.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
But I do agree that it is hard to take compliments especially when you do feel worthy of these.”
I also remember when I was at School but was at a social party outside of school hours when a girl gave me a compliment about my how she liked my shirt. At the time I ascoffed as though she was making fun of me. I was informed by another that she was being genuine and it was at this time that I realised that feeling of being a little wounded at not being better at the time in accepting “grace”.
I try better within myself these days.
Thanks for this article. Re the saying thank you phenomenon, I recently came across something that expands the concept of ACR for giving and receiving compliments – As the receiver of a compliment if you extend your thank you to something like “Thank you, it is so kind of you to say that/notice….(whatever)”, then you also include the giver of the compliment in the pleasure of the compliment even more so. I really like this concept and have been trying to use it more in my life. I can’t remember where I read it unfortunately.