How to be humble without putting yourself down

This story first appeared on The Muse, a Web destination with exciting job opportunities and expert career advice.

You know what’s just as hard as being confident without seeming arrogant? Being humble without selling yourself short.

Humble people are well-liked and respected in the office. Their peers love to work with them, and their bosses love to manage them. However, if you’re too humble, you run the risk of seeming passive or insecure. Even worse, you could get passed over for opportunities because no one knows you deserve them.

I’ve spent a lot of time observing how people successfully walk this line—and here’s what I’ve found.

1. They Take Credit

When someone congratulates you on a job well done, you might be tempted to say something like, “Oh, thank you, but it was all Kathy!”

Sure, Kathy will be grateful, but guess who will get the raise, next cool project, or public accolade when the time rolls around? Not you—Kathy.

Try this response instead:

Thank you! I really enjoyed working on [your share of the assignment]. And Kathy did a brilliant job with [Kathy’s share of the assignment].

You’ll get your credit, Kathy will get her credit, and you’ll sound gracious to boot.

2. They Ask Questions

Despite what most people think, asking questions doesn’t make you sound unintelligent or uniformed. On the contrary—people respect your willingness to show what you don’t know.

Next time someone’s giving a presentation, explaining a concept, or simply talking to you, I’d encourage you to ask (almost) any question that forms in your mind.

Here are a couple different ways of phrasing your questions:

That’s so interesting. Could you go more in-depth?

I’m unfamiliar with that concept. Tell me more!

You’re clearly well-versed on [topic], and I actually know very little. I’d love if you could [walk me through the process/give me a primer/explain the main concepts.

Huh, I don’t know if I got all that. Would you mind running through that one more time?

The exception: If you’re fairly confident you can find the answer on Google, take out your phone or notebook and jot down the question. He or she will think you’re so invested in the discussion that you’re taking notes (which technically, you are). Then, when you have a spare moment, research your question.

3. They Share What They Know

The flip side of being unafraid to ask questions? Being unafraid to share your knowledge. I used to stay quiet whenever I was in meetings with people much more important than me, even if they were talking about something I actually knew a lot about.

However, now I know that it’s not the status of the contributor that matters, it’s the quality of the contribution.

In situations where you’d normally hold back, try introducing your thoughts with:

That’s a great point, [name]. I’d like to add…

My work [at X company, in Y field, as a Z professional] showed me that…

I’ve always been intrigued by [topic], and surprisingly…

4. They Treat Everyone Equally

Sure, we’d all like to think we give everyone equal treatment, regardless of whether they’re the intern or the CEO. But that’s not always the case.

In my experience, people who are humble (but not overly so), are kind, attentive, and courteous to everyone they come across. I’ve met people just one rung above me on the ladder who’d ignore me, while I’ve also met C-suite executives who pay attention to my ideas, make an effort to remember small details about me, and greet with me big smiles whenever we cross paths in the office. Guess who seems more humble?

If you’re ever unsure whether you’re pulling your rank (or you know you are, and need a reminder to stop), pretend you’re on Undercover Boss, and the person that you’re brushing off has the power to promote you or fire you. It works like a charm.

5. They Ask for Feedback

There’s a lot of unsolicited feedback at work. Am I seriously suggesting you ask for more?

Here’s the thing: When people voluntarily makes themselves vulnerable by asking for feedback, they prove they respect your opinion, don’t have huge egos, and are willing to change to benefit the organization. In other words, they look awesome.

If you already have structured feedback sessions, make sure you’re regularly asking for comments from your team members, your managers, and your direct reports.

Here are a couple ways to phrase that:

Hey, [name]! It was great collaborating on that project with you. Do you have any thoughts on how I could improve my [work, presentation style, leadership skills, etc.]?

I’d love to hear what you’re enjoying about working under me, as well as what I could do to improve your experience.

I know we have reviews every quarter, but I’m eager to push myself professionally. Would it be possible to do a quick feedback session every Friday?

6. They Let Other People Brag

In the past, when I’ve encountered arrogant people, my competitive side has gotten the best of me, and I end up trying to “prove” myself. But this habit is pointless, because it leads to a silly game of one-upmanship. (And I shouldn’t care about their opinion, anyway.)

I’ve noticed that humble people never get into these power plays. Instead of reacting, they smile, nod, and let the person have his or her moment. Not only is it much more productive, but the bragger is satisfied and less likely to keep going if no one’s egging him or her on.

There’s a couple replies that come in handy in these situations:

That’s pretty cool you were able to [insert accomplishment here]. What are you up to these days?

So, when you’re not [insert accomplishment here]—congrats on that, by the way—what do you like to do for fun?

With these six techniques, you’ll maintain the perfect balance between humble and confident.

By Janet Chismar July 14, 2009

  • Home
  • Stories
  • 12 Ways to Humble Yourself

Routinely confess your sin to God (Luke 18:9-14). All of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. However, too few of us have a routine practice of rigorous self-honesty examination. Weekly, even daily, review of our hearts and behaviors, coupled with confession to God, is an essential practice of humility.

Acknowledge your sin to others (James 3:2, James 5:16). Humility before God is not complete unless there is also humility before man. A true test of our willingness to humble ourselves is willingness to share with others the weaknesses we confess to God. Wisdom, however, dictates that we do so with others that we trust.

Take wrong patiently (1 Peter 3:8-17). When something is unjust we want to react and rectify it. However, patiently responding to the unjust accusations and actions of others demonstrates our strength of godly character and provides an opportunity to put on humility.

Actively submit to authority…the good and the bad (1 Peter 2:18). Our culture does not value submission; rather it promotes individualism. How purposely and actively do you work on submission to those whom God has placed as authorities in your life? Doing so is a good way to humble yourself.

Receive correction and feedback from others graciously (Proverbs 10:17, 12:1). In the Phoenix area, a local East valley pastor was noted for graciously receiving any negative feedback or correction offered. He would simply say “thank you for caring enough to share that with me, I will pray about it and get back to you.” Look for the kernel of truth in what people offer you, even if it comes from a dubious source. Always pray, “Lord, what are you trying to show me through this?”

Accept a lowly place (Proverbs 25:6,7). If you find yourself wanting to sit at the head table, wanting others to recognize your contribution or become offended when others are honored or chosen, then pride is present. Purpose to support others being recognized, rather than you. Accept and look for the lowly place; it is the place of humility.

Purposely associate with people of lower state than you (Luke 7:36-39). Jesus was derided by the Pharisees for socializing with the poor and those of lowly state. Our culture is very status conscious and people naturally want to socialize upward. Resist the temptation of being partial to those with status or wealth.

Choose to serve others (Philippians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 4:5, Matthew 23:11). When we serve others, we are serving God’s purposes in their lives. Doing so reduces our focus on ourselves and builds the Kingdom of God. When serving another costs us nothing, we should question whether it is really servanthood

Be quick to forgive (Matthew 18: 21-35). Forgiveness is possibly one of the greatest acts of humility we can do. To forgive is to acknowledge a wrong that has been done us and also to further release our right of repayment for the wrong. Forgiveness is denial of self. Forgiveness is not insisting on our way and our justice.

Cultivate a grateful heart (1 Thessalonians 5:18). The more we develop an attitude of gratitude for the gift of salvation and life He has given us, the more true our perspective of self. A grateful heart is a humble heart.

Purpose to speak well of others (Ephesians 4:31-32). Saying negative things about others puts them “one down” and us “one up.” Speaking well of others edifies them and builds them up. Make sure, however, that what you say is not intended as flattery.

Treat pride as a condition that always necessitates embracing the cross (Luke 9:23). It is our nature to be proud and it is God’s nature in us that brings humility. Committing to a lifestyle of daily dying to ourselves and living through Him is the foundation for true humility.