Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen “Thanks for the Feedback” – book review

I have a history of not receiving feedback terribly well. When I was little and my Mum had the audacity to say that I was not vacuum cleaning in the corners, I would cross my arms and reply “You can do it yourself if you don’t like it”. The slightest criticism was a risk of me either giving up or bursting into tears.

Obviously, as a grown-up, I’ve had to work out at least some ways of dealing with feedback. Because I do a lot of writing I get feedback all the time. I often find myself giving feedback too.

But this does not come naturally to me. And when someone recommended Thanks for the Feedback I decided to give it a chance.

The authors, law lecturers at Harvard take a methodical approach to feedback. They talk about three triggers:

  • Truth trigger (the feedback is manifestly untrue and unfair)
  • Relationship triggers (after all I’ve done for you, all I get is this criticism)
  • Identity triggers (this feedback causes my entire identity to feel threatened. I’m struggling to survive here)

All of these are immediately recognizable to me.

The book covers techniques on seeing past the triggers and finding the useful information hidden in the feedback.

Firstly, one can distinguish between different kinds of feedback:

  • Appreciation
  • Coaching
  • Evaluation

A lot of conflicts can be avoided by trying to separate out the three. At school and at work it is hard to get feedback that is not an evaluation of your efforts at the same time. This can lead to conflict – as information that should help us develop “I should spend more time revising statistics “ turns into an evaluation of us as a person “I’m simply rubbish at math.”.

My problem is that I often take coaching as evaluation ( linked directly to my precarious sense of identity) and I can easily bristle at comments that would actually help me grow. If I stopped for a moment and actually listened to them. One of my favourite tips from this book is the question “What do you think is holding me back?” as a way of eliciting coaching. The question not only leads you to a response that might help you. It also puts you in the right mindset. This comment is not a criticism. This comment is trying to help me.

One can’t really develop on appreciation alone. Obviously, one can’t develop on evaluation alone either (otherwise, how will we know what to fix?). Even coaching doesn’t work on its own. You don’t know how well you are doing without some evaluation – and you would get discouraged if no-one appreciated your hard work.

Feedback can help us identify our blind spots. John thinks he is receptive to new ideas – but the rest of the team knows he always interrupts them before they get to speak. Only other people know how we come across to them. This is crucial information that will simply be unavailable to us unless we listen carefully to what others have to say.

Another threat to receiving feedback well is “switchtrack”, which is a handy term to describe the beginning of most arguments. What it basically means is that though two people are ostensibly talking about the same thing –- but really changing the subject.

You receive a piece of feedback and immediately say – it’s not the right time or else, worse still – “you think I need feedback! Let me tell me what I think of YOU.” Instead of listening carefully to what the other person has to say, we switch the subject to them – their flaws and how they annoy us.

I’ve read Thanks for the Feedback over a period of a few months, and I’m not sure I have absorbed all the crucial information in it yet. This post gives you some idea of the highlights this book contains. I will probably find myself flicking through it when I need to either give or receive feedback.



One thought on “Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen “Thanks for the Feedback” – book review

  1. “Difficult Conversations” has been on my radar for a little while so I might have to get both. I like getting feedback – as you say, self-evaluation only goes so far, no matter how perceptive we imagine we are. But it is frustrating to get feedback which seems unfair, or feedback from the wrong people etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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