The Art of Giving and Receiving Good Feedback
In his new book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone (along with co-author Sheila Heen) notes that all the suggestions we get from others are essential for our relationships and personal development, but they often lead to dread or even dismissal. As he dug into why, he realized it was because we haven’t ever been trained how to properly process this kind of information.
Stone, who teaches negotiation skills at Harvard Law School, spent the last decade drawing from neuroscience and psychology to develop strategies for better accepting the feedback we get every day. In this interview, he shares some of those insights, along with pointers on how to dole out advice more effectively.
Just so we’re clear, how do you define the term “feedback”?
Feedback includes anything that teaches you about yourself. Most people think of feedback as something you get from your boss at work, but it also comes all the time from our spouses, in-laws, kids and friends.
Your book points out that corporations spends billions of dollars a year training managers on how to give proper better feedback, yet you contend this money would be better spent helping employees to process it better.
If you look under the hood of any company, you’ll find complaints about the feedback system. Teaching managers to give feedback more skillfully helps, but it’s ultimately the receiver who decides what the feedback means and how to take it. Even the most skillful feedback won’t get through to someone who isn’t ready or able to listen.
What are the keys to being able to more effectively accept the feedback we receive?
It’s first important to understand our own reactions to it. Usually, one of three triggers will cause us to initially reject the feedback, even when it can be useful. The first trigger relates to the truth or validity of the feedback. We obviously don’t want to accept something that is wrong or doesn’t fit us, but too often we reject feedback before we even understand it. The second trigger relates to the person giving the feedback. We don’t trust their motives or expertise, or maybe we don’t like how they have treated us. Third, we’re triggered by the threat this feedback represents to who we are and how we see ourselves. Once we understand these reactions, we can begin to get a handle on thinking more clearly about what the feedback means and how to talk about it with the person giving it to us.
It sounds like the first priority should not be to accept or reject the feedback, but rather to understand it.
Exactly. Receiving feedback well doesn’t mean you have to take it. Instead, it’s about understanding it and making a choice about whether to take the feedback. Too often, feedback tends to be vague or comes with general labels — be more assertive, take your game to the next level, be more proactive. What does that mean? You have to dig under the labels and ask questions about what the person means. Once you get under the labels, you’ll be in a position to decide whether the feedback makes sense for you.
To that point, how do you know whether the advice someone passes along is worth taking?
There’s no surefire way, but realize you will always have a bias against thinking it will help. We like what we already know, and it’s tough to imagine that new ideas will make a positive difference. To help, I recommend what I call “small experiments.” Essentially, you choose to try something new even if you’re not sure it will help, especially in contexts where the risk is low and the potential reward is high. If it doesn’t help, stop doing it. If it does, keep it going. We often forget that change doesn’t have to last forever. You can test it for a day or month, but experimenting with all the different feedback you get will lead to greater rewards over time.
What if you truly disagree with the feedback? Should you let the person giving it know?
We assume there are two ways to respond to feedback we don’t agree with: either politely agree and then ignore it, or tell the person to their face they are wrong. But there’s a third choice that’s more effective. Don’t tell them they are right or wrong. Instead, explain why you see things differently. And be open. In the course of the conversation, it’s possible they’ll convince you that trying the feedback would be useful.
Are there different coping mechanisms, depending on whether the feedback comes from your boss or a close family member?
What feedback at work and home have in common is that it’s all feedback to you. You are the constant in the equation. As a result, the same acceptance skills will be useful: stay curious, inquire, seek to understand, and explain your point of view.
Are there differences in how men and women receive feedback?
Some people play to stereotypes and argue that women take feedback too personally or that men are impossible to get through to. My research hasn’t come across much useful information on that. Instead, I’ve found that individuals vary tremendously in terms of how they experience feedback, regardless of gender. In fact, neuroscience has taught us that, to some degree, these differences are wired in.
When people proactively ask for feedback, are they generally just looking for praise, or do they reallywant criticism as well?
They are probably looking for one of three things: evaluation (here’s your rating or rank), coaching (here’s how you can improve), or appreciation (you’ve done a great job). We need all three, but on the giving end, you should be clear as to what kind of feedback you are providing.
Has the proliferation of social media made us more or less receptive to feedback? After all, people can now go on the web and give us electronic feedback about everything from our pictures to what we’ve written.
With social media, you first need to question whether the feedback is really that. For instance, the comments section of an online article is treated like a game by some people. Amid the serious and thoughtful comments are musings some write to entertain themselves and their friends. At the same time, even over-the-top feedback can be helpful to the receiver if it’s read in the right way. Let’s say you own a restaurant and someone rants about how lousy the service was. You can choose to dismiss it as the ravings of a lunatic or mine it for constructive aspects. There was obviously something about the service that triggered this response, so it’s worth asking whether it can be improved.
Traditional wisdom says that when giving feedback, you should start by talking about something positive the person did, before digging into areas of improvement. Do you agree with this approach?
As a feedback giver, it’s crucial to be aware of the positive contributions of others. Too often, we are under so much pressure that we only focus on what needs to change. The Department of Labor did a study a while back and concluded that 90% of workers feel under-appreciated. So, yes, positive feedback is important. But any feedback needs to be genuine, and it should be as specific and detailed as possible regarding areas of improvement. Having said that, I don’t think it’s a matter of formula as much as balance. You shouldn’t say positive things just to help the person hear the negative feedback. You should give positive feedback because the receiver has earned and deserves it.