A CONVERSATION WITH DOUG STONE
FEEDBACK! It’s not just that performance review at work or the medal ceremony at our kid’s sports game. It’s the impatient “sigh” of the person next in the supermarket queue as we fumble for our card … the well-meaning parenting advice from our mother-in-law … the speeding ticket that arrives in our mailbox – it’s all feedback. It tells us what other people think of us, how we’re doing, where we need to improve, and if we’re valued or not.
Inevitably, on any given day, there’s a steady stream of feedback coming our way. And it’s up to us whether we view that feedback as valuable, irritating or devastating …
How can we get better at receiving the assessments and opinions of others? We asked an expert: Harvard law professor Doug Stone, co-author of ‘THANKS FOR THE FEEDBACK’…
GRAPEVINE: What first got you into this topic: “The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it’s off-base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood)’ …?
DOUG STONE: Well, we’d been developing some ideas in an earlier book, ‘Difficult Conversations’ – and we’d heard repeatedly from readers, organisations, schools and communities that some of the most difficult conversations people encounter have to do with giving and receiving feedback. It got us thinking, and we noticed that there was a fair amount of literature on how to GIVE feedback, but very little on how to RECEIVE it.
That makes some sense, because giving feedback seems, at first glance, to be the active role, while receiving feedback seems passive. But the longer we discussed it, the more we realised that receiving feedback is, in many ways, a more important skill. We’re constantly receiving feedback – and we can get BETTER at it, even when it comes from people who aren’t very good at giving it.
GRAPEVINE: Okay. So how do we benefit from learning to receive feedback well?
DOUG: One of the obvious benefits is that feedback can help us improve our skills.
HOW AM I DOING?
If you want to get better at maths, for example, feedback on what you got right and what you got wrong is crucial. But there are also other less obvious benefits. It’s much easier, for example, to have a relationship with someone who’s good at hearing and responding to feedback.
That doesn’t mean they’ll always take it – it’s not about “I give you feedback, then you change, and now you’re the perfect partner …” but they’re willing to consider it.
And another benefit: people who are good at receiving feedback give the impression that they’re doing a better job. They tend to get higher performance reviews, even if they’re doing nothing different from someone else.
GRAPEVINE: But let’s be honest: it can be hard receiving feedback – like a performance review, or criticism from a spouse. How do we learn to handle it better?
DOUG: Well, for starters, we need to recognise that it’s normal to feel defensive – especially when the feedback seems negative or unfair. That’s just human nature! And the goal isn’t to outgrow being defensive – it’s to get good at receiving feedback, despite our natural defences. You just need to be ready for those feelings – to prepare yourself and adopt that mindset of, Okay, I’m probably going to get some upsetting feedback about myself – it may be true, or it may be untrue.
If you can treat this as normal … and if you’re willing to dig into what feels hard rather than avoiding it … you can move forward …
GRAPEVINE: Are there other obstacles we need to overcome when receiving feedback?
DOUG: Yes. I like to think of them as ‘triggers’ – things that can activate our instinctive response to being upset – like defensiveness (which we’ve already mentioned) … anger … and ‘flight’, where we just want to run away. Trouble is, the moment we think the feedback is wrong, we can very rationally dismiss it. Which seems to make sense. But we tend to dismiss it before we’ve taken the time to really consider it.
People will often give us unclear feedback. Like, “You need to work harder …” or “You need to work smarter …” or “You need to be more confident …” They think they’re being helpful – but these comments don’t have any real meaning. If someone says, You need to work smarter, I literally have no idea what I should be doing. However, digging a bit can help me better understand what the other person is getting at: “When you say work smarter, what do you have in mind? Can you share an example of a time when you felt I was working smarter?”
The real trick is to create some space for yourself to try and understand what the feedback means:
WHAT YOU SAY/ WHAT YOU MEAN …
If your spouse says, “You weren’t polite to my family when they were visiting,” you might think, But I WAS polite! I think she’s wrong. I’ll just ignore it … In your mind being ‘impolite’ may mean being impatient or rude. But your spouse might mean something else: “You didn’t seem interested in them – you answered when they asked about your life, but you didn’t ask them about theirs!”
Essentially, it doesn’t matter how each of you defines ‘polite’. The point is, we often judge someone’s words based on what we think they mean. And sometimes, when it seems the feedback they’re giving us is wrong, the other person may mean something very different.
So it’s okay to think that someone’s assessment of us is wrong. And it’s appropriate not to take their opinion seriously if we think it’s harmful. But we need to ask ourselves first: Do I actually fully understand what they’re saying?
A term I like to use is ‘right-spotting’ – because it’s easy to notice what’s wrong with the feedback someone’s giving us, and dismiss it, without also considering what might be right about it. It’s possible they might just be a bit off-base, but their feedback contains other things that could be super-helpful.
GRAPEVINE: In your book you identify three distinct kinds of feedback. Why is this important?
DOUG: Well, the first is appreciation. That’s someone saying, “I see you and what you’re doing, and here’s what I appreciate about it …” It gives us a sense that What I do matters – someone’s noticing the work or thought I’ve put into it – and they’re sharing that with me! All humans want acknowledgement, appreciation, and respect – an encouraging pat on the back.
The second category is coaching. When we’re asking for feedback, this is often what we’re after: we want advice on how to do something better. If our job is sales, maybe we want to learn new ways to close the deal. If it’s helping us develop better skills, then that’s coaching.
The third category is evaluation. This is the feedback that gives us a sense of how we’re doing compared to other people in our job… or compared to how we’ve done in the past… or compared to how our evaluator thought we would do. People are often happy to take appreciation and coaching, but they’d rather skip evaluation – because evaluations can be negative, too, if you’re not meeting expectations. But, in fact, it’s useful to know that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, to have a sense of where we stand.
GRAPEVINE: Is there any way to improve the way others are giving us feedback?
DOUG: Definitely. As with everything, it helps to communicate and be explicit. For example, you might say, “Look, I’d like to get better at what I’m doing, and I’m trying hard. What is it that I could be working on?” That’s really a simple request: I want to get better, so where and how can I improve? You’re allowed to ask for clarification. Some people may respond, “That’s not really my job …” or “I don’t have the time to hold your hand …” And that’s fine. You mightn’t get what you’re asking for, but you’re much more likely to get it if you ask.
GRAPEVINE: You write that one of the biggest blocks to receiving feedback well is that we exaggerate it …
DOUG: That’s right. For example, if someone says, “I don’t like the way you whistle that song …” we get all upset – not because one person thinks that we don’t whistle one song well (which is literally the feedback they’ve given us), but because we’re distorting the feedback!
DISTORTING THE FEEDBACK
All of a sudden, it’s not just about a single song. In our mind, it’s now whistling and singing and performing – everything! They’re saying they don’t like anything I do! And, of course, it would be upsetting if someone gave you that feedback. But they didn’t. They just said, “I don’t like the way you whistle that song.”
So it’s worth asking ourselves, What’s the scope of this feedback? Because we then might realise it’s actually really small: They don’t want me to whistle that song … Or maybe: They just don’t want me to whistle … But it’s certainly not: I don’t like you as a human being … which is maybe how we feel.
GRAPEVINE: Does our response to feedback differ depending on who it’s coming from?
DOUG: All feedback is happening in some context, and one important cue is: who is giving us this feedback? We’re going to hear things differently, depending on who it’s coming from – if it’s a parent, or a teacher, or a friend, and so on – and what we expect to hear from them, versus what they actually say. And when we get feedback from someone we’re not used to receiving it from, it can still be valuable – in fact, they may be the very people we should ask, if we want to gain a fresh perspective. Hearing about ourselves from a different angle can be hugely helpful.
It’s the same with someone who doesn’t particularly like us … someone who sees things differently or thinks we’re way off base. They could be just the person to give us some real insight – and maybe they’re the only person who’s actually willing to tell us! Again, it’s another angle …
GRAPEVINE: You talk about ‘supportive mirrors’ and ‘honest mirrors’ – what do you mean?
DOUG: What I call a ‘supportive mirror’ is someone who recognises your need, and gives you a boost. And you’re better off for it.
A ‘SUPPORTIVE MIRROR’ …
From time to time, we all get feedback that makes us feel vulnerable – and the first thing we want to do is run to our friend so they can tell us that we’re a good person. Let’s say you’re a teacher, and you get a bad evaluation. What you probably want in that moment is for someone to look you in the eye and say, “Hey, you’re a great teacher. That’s all that matters!”
But maybe, in the same example, it’s a couple of weeks later, and you’ve been thinking: What I really need is someone to help me clarify the truth … So you say, “Look, this evaluation feels unfair to me, but I need your perspective. Do you see things here that I’m not seeing?”
You’re now asking someone to be an ‘honest mirror’ – a second pair of eyes.
GRAPEVINE: When we receive feedback that feels wrong or unfair, what’s the best approach?
DOUG: It’s sometimes useful to just be honest – and specific – with the other person: “You’re saying I should be more dramatic in my presentation, but let me try and explain why that doesn’t make sense and feels a bit unfair …” At the end of the day, the other person may say, “Well, you’d better figure it out, because …” but at least you’ve given it your best shot and tried to clarify things.
People won’t understand why their feedback doesn’t resonate with us unless we share our perspective.
If something doesn’t sit right with you, you can acknowledge that without being confrontational. You can be upfront and say something like, “This doesn’t mesh with the way I see myself …” or “what other people have told me.” You’re not actually disagreeing – you’re just inviting them to help you understand their perspective while you’re also sharing yours. It invites conversation.
GRAPEVINE: So tell us: how can we learn to be better feedback-receivers?
DOUG: Well, one thing we can do is develop a ‘growth mindset’. Some of us experience the world as a test that’s going to tell us how good we are at things. Feedback to people with a ‘fixed mindset’ is just evaluation: it’s telling them that they’re winning or losing … good or bad – and they hear it like, Okay, here’s my score. But the trouble with that is, if they don’t do well, it can be really defeating.
To the ‘fixed mindset’, feedback seems very much like judgement …
A ‘growth mindset’, however, sees feedback as something that’s going to improve us: This is the stuff that’s helping me grow. I might get a little better, or I might get a lot better, but I’ll always get better.
GRAPEVINE: It must be a real block to receiving feedback if you think you already know everything?
DOUG: It is. After all, we can’t learn what we already know. It’s like, “Well, you can give me feedback, but I don’t really need to listen. I’ve got this figured out …” There’s more that we don’t get than we imagine.
We need to be aware of our blind spots. For example, we’re constantly giving signals to people about how we feel and what we think. We do it with our body language and facial expressions. But – remarkably – we have almost no experience of our physical selves in the world.
OUR BLIND SPOTS:
It’s like we’re in a room with 100 people: 99 of those people can see our face, but the one that can’t see our face is us. Sometimes we’re vaguely aware of that – sometimes we’re not. It’s easy to think, “Boy, I’m doing a good job of not letting you see just how stupid I think your idea is …” because we’re not saying it out loud. But, in fact, our facial expression is saying it all.
So when someone says, “You’re very critical of our ideas …” you think that feedback’s wrong, because you didn’t say a single critical word – but that’s our blind spot at work: we don’t observe ourselves in ways other people do.
GRAPEVINE: What’s the best way to take action and make positive changes following feedback?
DOUG: Something you can do upfront is ask the person who’s given you feedback for one thing that you could do better. If someone watches you give a presentation and then they give you 20 different things they want you to work on, that’s overwhelming – and you’ll be tempted to give up. But if you can just focus on one thing, it becomes more manageable – and the other person can see improvement in that area.
Communication is the key to making the most of any feedback you’re receiving. It’s a negotiation. So listen intentionally. Try to spot the right things that others are telling you. And keep the two-way conversation going.
THANKS FOR THE FEEDBACK BY DOUGLAS STONE AND SHEILA HEEN IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS. IF YOU’D LIKE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HIS WORK, GOOGLE DOUGLAS STONE (WRITER).