John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Receiving is as Important as Giving: As in Compliments!

Recently I wrote a blog on the art of complimenting. One of my readers thoughtfully wrote me and suggested I should now do one of the art of receiving compliments, and responding to them. Hmm, I may really be on to something here.

As a child, I was taught that it was more important to give than to receive. But, as a young professor at the University of South Carolina, in the training they provided for first-time, first-year seminar, University 101 instructors, I learned about the importance of both giving and receiving feedback and its relationship to improving student learning. And once I understood this, it made me a much better teacher.

I realize it is possible that some educators may react that students aren’t really qualified to make a professional judgment of their educators, whether positive or negative. I hope you won’t react that way. We educators know that we can influence student and colleague behaviors by the feedback we give them. We also need to remember that the feedback we receive, particularly the compliments, can influence our behavior too.

So, about receiving compliments, I think it is all part of the need to be intentional about seeking and then responding to feedback. In responding, I don’t think we should debate, deny, or defend it (ourselves). Instead we need to try to appreciate and understand it. And then decide what, if anything, we are going to do with it.

It is especially empowering to students when we come back into a setting with them and tell them: “You told me that when I do XXXX, you really enjoy that and learn from it, and so I am going to do that more often, for example, right now! Thank you so much for helping me understand how to better reach you.” Learning is such an interconnected, inter-dependent process. By giving and receiving feedback, including compliments, we continue our own learning. I think we need to acknowledge this, how important it is, how good it feels, and what positive uses we can make of it.

How lucky and privileged we are to be in a profession where our students and colleagues have good reasons to compliment us. As Thoreau once said, in contrast: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The art of both giving and receiving compliments helps insure that we do not lead lives of quiet desperation, in and out of the academy.

~John N. Gardner

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