Crucial Skills®

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Dealing with Backhanded Compliments

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a colleague who deals me backhanded compliments about my job performance as the proofreader for the firm. For example, she repeatedly congratulates me on catching errors and then says, “It’s nice to hear those things when you never hear it from anyone else. It must be awful to think your job is not valued.” First of all, my work is valued; that is not the issue or even something I worry about. I just want the backhanded compliments to stop.

I don’t like this woman on a personal level because she is a gossip and has a reputation for stirring up trouble at the office. However, because I work closely with her and her department, I want to at least have a respectful working relationship. How do I address the backhanded compliments she’s been serving me lately?


Dear Slighted,

Thank you for your question. I read some resentment in your comments (perhaps my interpretation). You say you don’t like your coworker. But the fact that you took the trouble to write about this makes me suspect that you feel provoked or offended by her insinuation that your work is not respected. That’s what I’ll assume for the purpose of my response to you. If I’m way off base, then I hope my comments are at least useful to others!

May I suggest that the reason her comments hurt is not because they’re hurtful, it’s because you fear them. They trigger some shame or hurt you hold from past experience. The hurt they create is predictable because you hold them in a mentally habitual way. Two things are necessary to create this pain. First, some triggering circumstance must occur. For example, someone indicates that they believe your work is of inferior value to that of others. Second, and this is the important part: you must interpret this triggering event as evidence of some shame you fear. For example, when someone disparages my work, I may conclude that I am worthless. The second step feels inevitable and true. We don’t even notice our role in the interpretation process because we have a lifetime of practice in drawing this conclusion whenever these kinds of triggers occur. But if you change the way you interpret, the hurt will disappear—completely.

I know this both from the laboratory of my own life and from a lifetime of observation of others’ emotional responses to social triggers. I was baffled for years as I observed people in apparently toxic interpersonal environments who seemed largely immune to them.

For example, I once watched a man who was (wrongfully) accused of being dishonest in the middle of a business meeting. This wasn’t a passing accusation either. It was delivered with a sneer and a string of epithets. I felt my body tense in empathy for the man who was being unfairly insulted. Had it been me, I would have felt a powerful urge to lash out at the accuser. This man, on the other hand, was relaxed. His face showed concern, but not pain. And his response registered interest, but not animosity. “Wow. I had no idea you saw me that way. What have I done that caused you to see me like that?” he said.

He felt no shame. He felt no pain. Instead, he felt compassion and curiosity. Why? Because he understood that this person’s action were not about him.

So, I’ve got great news for you. In fact, I can promise you that if you think deeply about what I’m about to share, nintey-nine percent of the problem you’re experiencing will disappear in a matter of days—or weeks at the most. Never again will you feel slighted, offended, or hurt by this person. Wouldn’t that be great? All you need to do is consistently practice the following skill in coming days and these results are guaranteed. Remember: It is never, never, never, never, never about you. Never. Ever.

Now, let me be clear. There are times when others’ words or actions give us true feedback. They may indicate we are incompetent, made a mistake, broke a promise, etc. And their feedback may be true. It may be helpful information about you. But their emotions and judgments are not about you; they are about them. Nothing they ever do or say has any implications for your worth, self-respect, or self-esteem—unless you decide it does. And it is this decision that causes your persecutor’s foible to feel provocative to you.

So, here’s what I’d suggest:

1. Own your emotions. Notice what kinds of triggers connect with painful self-doubts or shame you’ve learned to invoke. Then develop a script you’ll use to refute this inaccurate conclusion and reconnect with the truth about yourself.

2. Get curious. Once you’ve owned and managed the emotions that could get in the way of a healthy conversation, you’ll notice your resentment will be replaced with curiosity. So act on it. Approach this person, describe the pattern you see, then genuinely try to understand where she’s coming from when she makes these statements. As you do, you will almost inevitably gain new insight about why she frames her “compliments” the way she does. For instance, when your shame is not distorting your perception, you may learn that she has felt her work was disrespected in the past. Maybe her comments were a clumsy attempt to reassure you about something that is only an issue for her.

3. Teach. With a better understanding of her true intent, you can let her know how you hear comments like this. Teach her better ways of expressing solidarity or affirmation to you.

I wish you the best in creating a healthier relationship with her. But most of all, I hope recognizing this trigger gives you an opportunity to develop greater emotional mastery—which can bring a greater peace and happiness to your life.

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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22 thoughts on “Dealing with Backhanded Compliments”

  1. Daine Dychtiar

    wo I just learned anew way to respond.
    Well said

  2. Diane Dychtiar

    Thank you so much!
    I am looking forward to future posts.

  3. Ila Richardson

    Communication among women is not necessarily that straight-forward. I hope this solution works for the person who submitted it.

  4. Barb O'Brien

    Your crucial line….it is never, never, never, never, never, never ever about you; keeping that information in the “front of your brain” – especially when you are being dealt a backhanded compliment, or a dig, or snide comment is the key. I have not let the snide commenters, the judgemental co-workers or any nay sayers have that control any longer. When I am in that situation, I may begin to feel the resentment or anger, but then I stop….just stop…for 2-3 seconds and regain my composure and say in my head…this is not about me and I am able to respond appropriately.I am so much more content and happy. I took the control back and I’m not letting go! I learned this in CC many years ago and I am eternally grateful~

  5. tdiym

    Others’ comments can be hurtful because they aren’t said in isolation. My concern with backhanded compliments such as the OP reported is that they can be given credibility by others and one’s own reputation can suffer from others belief in the false information. Having a good reputation is important at work and I think that having someone undermine that in a seemingly “innocent” yet deliberate way is more significant than just being curious about why someone would be out to dish undermining comments about others. Hopefully curiousity and teaching could defuse someone who may have malicious intent; it’s hard tell until you see whether the comments abate or not.

    1. Reecca

      Absolutely. I had a personal experience where I confirmed via a conversation with the backhander that his intent was to damage my reputation in order to increase the chances I would get laid off during a pending reduction in force so he could get a “man” in the position. Said man turned out to be a relative. It was shocking to hear him say he didn’t believe woman should be working outside the home, and that he felt insulated enough to say so. Of course this was in a private conversation that I was sure he would not repeat to higher management. At that time I just didn’t know what to do. Fortunately karma stepped in and he got laid off and I didn’t. I think I now have several things to consider in dealing with such a saboteur if I needed to.

  6. Sean Kelly

    On a volunteer basis I work with young men ranging from ages 12 to 18. Some of them are insecure about their appearance or talents. Sometimes when I compliment them on something, their immediate response is to get defensive and assume I am making fun of them. I am not saying that is what is going on with the person who submitted the question. Their is abrasive behavior in the workplace that can materialize in the form of mocking compliments. However, our own insecurity often filters the compliments that others give to us in ways that the giver of the compliment would never intend. There are some great skills in this article that I am going to try and remember.

  7. Margaret

    Sometimes people just like the drama of pot-stirring. It can be a game for them. Suck out any truth in her comments and spit out the venom. It isn’t about you, and get your real feedback from the people who matter.

  8. Joan

    This article was VERY helpful to me and I will start using your suggestions. Thanks.
    On another note, the writer says her job is a proofreader, obviously a necessary job at her firm. Perhaps the co-worker that makes the snide comments feels inadequate because she has made a mistake in her work in the first place. Then a proofreader catches it and points it out to her and she has to go back and make the necessary changes. I point this out because I used to look at my work from this angle. When I finally recognized that we all bring different talents to the table and we should all working for the same end product my attitude changed and my days went a lot better. I slept better too!

    1. Sus

      I also thought the submitter was a woman.

  9. Merlla McLaughlin

    Such helpful advice in the post. I will apply it myself. Years ago, I got a view from the other side–I had a boyfriend who derived the greatest glee from insulting people in such a way that it sounded like a sincere, heartfelt compliment. His favorite moment of such interactions was when they thanked him for the “compliment”. I never could wrap my brain around that.

  10. Sunil Roy

    I have improved a lot in such aspects after seeing a great video that spoke about the need to allow and respect conflicts of ideas and thoughts to have a progressive society.
    I read some more articles and then started feeling that while a person X may speak or feel ill about me, it is actually HE who is getting stressed, and we should NOT get stressed in return.
    We should Respond, NOT React.
    And, as you rightly mentioned, we should also understand the problem by speaking to him directly as to why he is annoyed, and what action or words from me caused that annoyance.
    This also helps us correcting misconceptions many times.
    I recently saw that a person has changed his friendly attitude (towards me) to a rough one. I tried connecting the dots and figured that it could be linked to the fact that I had recently asked him about the reasons of his project issues, which may have intimidated him (without I realizing it fully).
    I walked up to him, patted his back gently, and asked him very courteously whether the question that I had asked him offended him in any manner.
    He did not expect this. He paused and then in a low volume replied…”No”. But I could sense that probably he WAS offended by my question the last time around.
    I explained to him that I ask others also about similar things since I am trying to improve processes, and I meant no harm. And, I am sorry for offending him.
    He had a smile, and said “That’s fine, no issues”.
    I could sense that has eased up.
    It made me happy too and smiled in return. Patted his back again and left.
    Had I felt angry at his changed behavior, it would have harmed me.
    When we are angry, it is we who are harmed.
    —Very Important —-
    By Saying Sorry, we are NOT belittling ourselves. We just show that we value our relationships more than our ego.
    Also, by approaching him, we show that we are ready to walk the mile to improve our relationship.
    Thanks for your GREAT Article, Joe.
    — Sunil Roy

  11. Sangeeta

    Thank you for the insight – this is absolutely wonderful advice – i will for sure, leverage it. Is there a script that you can share for owning your emotions? it is something i perennially have a problem with. In situations where someone is hurling insults at me, i’m usually silent and crying due to disbelief – its hard for me to believe what i’m hearing, and somewhere inside i’m afraid that might be true, so i end up in tears – i’m never able to get thru that to even ask that person anything. i’m not starting to learn that it is more about them than it is about me – but, it is still hard to put into practice …. i want to learn how to own my emotions and get past the hurt so that i can get curious …..
    -thank you! – SS

  12. Leslie

    Fantastic article!

  13. Michelle Adams

    I have to say that I think this response was off target for the issue presented. While I do believe this is great advice for other instances, in this case I would agree with the person who submitted the question that her co-worker’s comments should be addressed. I really liked the example you gave of the person who was publicly “attacked” and how he kept his cool. Why not use that same suggestion? Have her ask her co-worker why she believes her work is not valued since she has never gotten that impression. If she calls her on it, hopefully the annoying comments will stop.

  14. Kevin F

    In the words of Chris Rock, “let it slide. There’s no reason to spend the next 10 years of your life in jail, because someone smudged your Pumas.” You really need to start with the confidence within you. It really is about the other person. In this case, you just trashed one of their best pieces of work. I actually interpreted their response as they were fishing for a compliment and feeling rather worthless.

    Something to keep in mind as a proofreader is that there oftentimes are different styles of writing that are still acceptable. I offended one co-worker to the point that he encouraged my boss to enforce some disciplinary action (verbal warning) against me, mainly because he hadn’t requested my input; the input was definitely needed. Hopefully, going forward, he will proofread his work before he sends it out to God and everyone.

  15. Martha Frankel, FNP, MFT

    Steps 1 and 2 really resonate for me….step 3 “teach” not so much. I try to ask permission, eg, would you like some feedback on that? rather than offer suggestions in situations like this because the other person may already be feeling “one down” and it can be perceived as patronizing. My experience is that people who make damaging comments about my work do hurt themselves much more than they hurt me.

  16. Sheba

    Thank you. Very useful.

  17. duano792

    Wonderful advice and very timely, since I work in a situation that is very similar. Thank You!

  18. HMH

    “It must be awful to think your job is not valued.” When the recipient of this comment has not said or acted as if their job was worthless, this is clearly a lie and its intended function is to put the recipient in their place. On the other hand, if the recipient goes around moaning that they feel undervalued and such (embarrassing like I did a long time ago), then the comment could be taken as sympathetic and understanding.

    Most often I have heard people utter this kind of thing when they wanted to hurt the recipient or put them in their place. Kind of like “damning with faint praise.”

  19. Shari Narayan

    It totally boils down to self-esteem and self-confidence. Some of us weren’t guided with wisdom when we were young and did not learn appropriate relationship skills. I agree with the advice to take control of your own emotions. I also agree that WE decide if we allow someone else’s opinion to bother us. However, I have found there are some people in this world who will say exactly what they please regardless of others’ feelings. When I was younger I let alot of people get away with rude comments. Now, when someone says something unfitting or unkind, I understand that its about them, not me – but frankly, I’m really not “compassionate” or “curious” at all about why they might have said such a thing. I think it’s better to look them straight in the eyes and calmly say “I disagree.” That way, you have made a definite challenge to their idea – whatever it is, and you have shown them that next time, they might want to think twice before they speak to you inappropriately — because you value yourself and expect others to do the same. Someone said “we teach people how to treat us” and I agree.

    1. Rebecca

      Well said and great advice.

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