"It doesn’t matter how much authority or power a feedback giver has; the receivers are in control of what they do and don’t let in, how they make sense of what they’re hearing, and whether they choose to change."
Sheila Heen, Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton’s Difficult Conversations remains one of the most important books on my book shelf—one that I go back to time and time again—and one that I recommend widely. Now, Heen and Stone’s new book, Thanks for the Feedback, published a full fifteen years after their first, is going to join and perhaps supersede the place of their first book on my shelf.
Both practical and profound, the authors argue that as humans we want to both learn and improve AND be loved and accepted for who we now are. Feedback, regardless of how it’s given, can threaten the notion that we are okay the way we are—and thus receiving it can be challenging and can trigger us in a variety of ways. Yet, in order to grow, we need feedback.
While most of what you read and learn about feedback focuses on feedback giver, this book puts the burden of feedback on the receiver. The authors contend that by becoming skillful receivers and requesters of feedback, we can fully own our learning and growth. Feedback is no longer something that is “pushed” at us, but something that we “pull” towards us. And, as we become skillful at the art of receiving feedback, we develop the capacity to learn from anyone and anything. We can transform feedback, even when it is poorly delivered, and leverage it for our growth and development.
The Three Primary Feedback Triggers
"Understanding our triggers and sorting out what sets them off are the keys to managing our reactions and engaging in feedback conversations with skill."
The good news about feedback triggers is that while we may feel as if they are innumerable, they can be isolated into three major types—truth, relationship and identity. When we get feedback that causes a reaction in us, invariably it is setting off one (or more) of these three triggers.
We experience Truth Triggers when we feel that the feedback we’ve received is off-base, unhelpful, or just plain wrong. Relationship Triggers are set off not so much because of what is said—but because of who said it. “Who are they to tell us that—they always do the same thing—only worse?” or “Really, after I’ll I’ve done for you, you could say that?” Finally, Identity Triggers are about who we are—and are tripped by feedback that undermines something that we hold to be true about ourselves, at our very core. This kind of feedback can cause us to lose balance, feel threatened and experience profound self-doubt. When an identity trigger is activated, we react by entering into survival mode rather than by working with what might actually be useful in the feedback we heard.
By understanding, naming and acknowledging these triggers we remove the primary obstacle that gets in the way of skillfully receiving feedback. We can powerfully decide what we want to accept and what we choose not to accept. As long as we are operating from within the triggers, on the other hand, we can’t hear what we would benefit from hearing—and we may overreact to what is not valuable.
Shape the feedback you get by asking for the feedback you need
"When we use the word ‘feedback,’ we may be referring to any of three different kinds of information: appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Each serves an important purpose, each satisfies different needs, and each comes with its own set of challenges."
Feedback comes in three flavors.
There is appreciation—which is simply expressing gratitude—it’s about connection, and involves recognition of who we are and what we do. Appreciation means that we’ve been seen and understood by others.
Feedback can also come in the form of coaching—someone else’s attempt to help us to improve—which takes the form of advice, direction, suggestions or guidance. While we are open to this type of feedback when it’s helping us learn a new skill or develop new capacity, it’s more of a challenge when it’s given without us requesting it—in response to what the other person perceives as a problem in our relationship with them, based on what the feedback giver is feeling.
The third type of feedback is evaluation—a score, a performance review, an assessment of some sort. Evaluations are important—they “align expectations, clarify consequences, and inform decision making.” Evaluation also can make us feel judged, nervous, or anxious.
The problem is that the feedback we get is not always the feedback we are seeking—or needing. If we need to be appreciated and receive coaching, we may not hear the coaching. If we are unsure of where we stand, we might need evaluative feedback before we can hear the coaching we are offered. If what we really need is coaching, evaluation might be premature. And, if we really want coaching, appreciation probably won’t suffice.
What can we do? Ask for what we need. So, for example, rather than just asking for “some feedback,” get specific. Ask someone to tell you where you stand on the project, or tell them you’d like some coaching, or let them know you just need some words of appreciation or encouragement. Remember that evaluation can be read into all feedback and can make it hard to hear any other dimension of feedback—so be aware of the tendency to hear more evaluation than was intended.
From “Wrongspotting” to “Difference Spotting”
"We listen to feedback with this question in mind: ‘What’s wrong with this feedback?’ And as it turns out, we can almost always find something."
Heen and Stone coin the term “wrongspotting” to describe what we typically do with feedback. There are a myriad of ways to poke holes in the feedback we receive—to view it as wrong. And, the reality is that in some ways it IS wrong. The problem is that by deeming it “wrong,” we fail to see what might be “right” and we fail to try to understand what’s behind the feedback. We dismiss the entire thing because of who it’s given by, because of the timing, or because some part of it is, in fact, not true.
Understanding means going below the surface of the words. It means clarifying the potential difference between what you heard and what was meant. It also means going further—trying to understand why each of you sees it differently. We need to move from an “it’s wrong” response to a “tell me more” response.
We are all both givers and receivers of feedback. We give feedback consciously and unconsciously, just as we are constantly receiving and processing feedback. This book will help you become a more conscious receiver of feedback. It will also encourage you to become a seeker of feedback. And, despite the title and focus, I’m confident that this book will help you to learn to give feedback so that it can be better received.