Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well
By Shelia Heen & Douglas Stone

Feedback always comes up when people are asked to list the most difficult conversations they have.

When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it.  When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.

The focus on feedback needs to be less on how to give feedback, and more on how to receive feedback.

Learning about ourselves can be painful, sometimes brutally so.  Feedback is hard as it sits between our desire to learn/grow and being accepted, loved, and respected.

Look for the nugget in the feedback even if it feels like your digging through crap.

Receiving feedback doesn’t mean you always have to take the feedback.  Receiving it well means engaging in the conversation skillfully.

People who are willing to look at themselves are easier to work and live with.  Being with people who are grounded and open is energizing.

There are three feedback triggers:

  1. Truth triggers – the feedback is wrong, unfair, or unhelpful so we reject, defend, or counter attack as a result.
  2. Relationship triggers – we dismiss feedback due to the source.  We shift our focus from the feedback itself to the person delivering it.
  3. Identity triggers – when we feel that feedback threatens our needs for security, approval or control then we can become defensive.

There are three types of feedback, separate out which one is being used in the discussion:

  1. Appreciation – is about relationship and human connection. It says, “thanks,” and conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me.”
  2. Coaching – is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change.  The focus is on helping the person improve.
  3. Evaluation – tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating.  When your boss says your performance is “extremely strong” and that he’s grooming you for his job, that’s evaluation (in this case, positive).

Feedback is best when it’s specific and doesn’t beat around the bush.  Most people are not specific in their feedback for fear of hurting others.

When providing feedback allow the other person to ask clarifying questions; say something like, “Let me describe what I mean and you can ask me question to see if I’m making sense.”

When receiving feedback shift from “that’s wrong” to “tell me more.”

Our ability to absorb feedback is driven by the way we tell our identity story.  Some people tell their identity story in ways to cause their identities to be brittle (see feedback as a threat), and some tell their identity story in ways that allow it to be robust.  Those with a robust identity story treat feedback as an opportunity to learn and grow.  While some of us do this naturally there are things we can do in order to make ourselves more resilient 1) give up simple (all or nothing) identity labels e.g. if we’re not good we’re bad, if we’re not smart we’re dumb, if not a saint a sinner.  Instead we should cultivate complexity 2) move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

A skillful way to give feedback is to allow the receiver to ask clarifying questions.  For example say, “Let me describe what I mean and you can ask me questions to see if I’m making sense.”

We can be triggered by who gives the feedback, what we think about them, or how we feel treated by them.  Relationship triggers create switch back conversations where we have two topics come up and two people talk past each other.  When this happens identify those topics and address each separately.

There are two types of feedback profiles that make feedback accountability difficult: shifters and blame absorbers.  When things go wrong blame absorbers believe everything is their fault and carry all the weight on their shoulders e.g. our products didn’t sell to expectations so I must have screwed up the launch.  Instead of taking all the blame look at the bigger picture and see what can be improved in totality not just you.  Blame shifters, “it’s not me,” are chronically immune to acknowledging their role in problems.  When they get feedback or suffer failure they quickly point to everyone else who hindered their efforts or must be biased towards them – they see themselves as victims. 

Be on the look out for knee jerk “not my fault” thoughts or words, and step back to understand the feedback; take responsibility for your part. 

If you get a negative evaluation or feedback give yourself a second score on how you handled it.  After each failure, low score, etc. give yourself a second score based on how you handled it.  In every situation in life there’s the situation itself and then how you handled it.  Even when you get an ‘F’ for the situation itself, you can still get an ‘A+’ on how you deal with it.  The good news is that while the initial evaluation may not be within in our control, our reaction to it is – and in the long term the second score is often more important than the first.

When getting feedback ask for clarification or an example to show you hear the person, while at the same time looking to understand the feedback fully.

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