Thanks for the Feedback

by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2014
Printing: 2015
ISBN: 1-101-61427-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 322

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Another book read for the work book club.

I was disappointed when this book was picked. I already read two excellent advice columns (Captain Awkward and Ask a Manager) and have read a lot on this general topic. Many workplace-oriented self-help books also seem to be full a style of pop psychology that irritates me rather than informs. But the point of a book club is that you read the book anyway, so I dove in. And was quite pleasantly surprised.

This book is about receiving feedback, not about giving feedback. There are tons of great books out there about how to give feedback, but, as the authors say in the introduction, almost no one giving you feedback is going to read any of them. It would be nice if we all got better at giving feedback, but it's not going to happen, and you can't control other people's feedback styles. You can control how you receive feedback, though, and there's quite a lot one can do on the receiving end. The footnoted subtitle summarizes the tone of the book: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you're not in the mood).

The measure of a book like this for me is what I remember from it several weeks after reading it. Here, it was the separation of feedback into three distinct types: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Appreciation is gratitude and recognition for what one has accomplished, independent of any comparison against other people or an ideal for that person. Coaching is feedback aimed at improving one's performance. And evaluation, of course, is feedback that measures one against a standard, and usually comes with consequences (a raise, a positive review, a relationship break-up). We all need all three but different people need different mixes, sometimes quite dramatically so. And one of the major obstacles in the way of receiving feedback well is that they tend to come mixed or confused.

That framework makes it easier to see where one's reaction to feedback often goes off the rails. If you come into a conversation needing appreciation ("I've been working long hours to get this finished on time, and a little thanks would be nice"), but the other person is focused on an opportunity for coaching ("I can point out a few tricks and improvements that will let you not work as hard next time"), the resulting conversation rarely goes well. The person giving the coaching is baffled at the resistance to some simple advice on how to improve, and may even form a negative opinion of the other person's willingness to learn. And the person receiving the feedback comes away feeling unappreciated and used, and possibly fearful that their hard work is merely a sign of inadequate skills. There are numerous examples of similar mismatches.

I found this framing immediately useful, particularly in the confusion between coaching and evaluation. It's very easy to read any constructive advice as negative evaluation, particularly if one is already emotionally low. Having words to put to these types of feedback makes it easier to evaluate the situation intellectually rather than emotionally, and to explicitly ask for clarifying evaluation if coaching is raising those sorts of worries.

The other memorable concept I took away from this book is switchtracking. This is when the two people in a conversation are having separate arguments simultaneously, usually because each person has a different understanding of what the conversation is "really" about. Often this happens when the initial feedback sets off a trigger, particularly a relationship or identity trigger (other concepts from this book), in the person receiving it. The feedback giver may be trying to give constructive feedback on how to lay out a board presentation, but the receiver is hearing that they can't be trusted to talk to the board on their own. The receiver will tend to switch the conversation away to whether or not they can be trusted, quite likely confusing the initial feedback giver, or possibly even prompting another switchtrack into a third topic of whether they can receive criticism well.

Once you become aware of this tendency, you start to see it all over the place. It's sadly common. The advice in the book, which is accompanied with a lot of concrete examples, is to call this out explicitly, clearly separate and describe the topics, and then pick one to talk about first based on how urgent the topics are to both parties. Some of those conversations may still be difficult, but at least both parties are having the same conversation, rather than talking past each other.

Thanks for the Feedback fleshes out these ideas and a few others (such as individual emotional reaction patterns to criticism and triggers that interfere with one's ability to accept feedback) with a lot of specific scenarios. The examples are refreshingly short and to the point, avoiding a common trap of books like this to get bogged down into extended artificial dialogue. There's a bit of a work focus, since we get a lot of feedback at work, but there's nothing exclusively work-related about the advice here. Many of the examples are from personal relationships of other kinds. (I found an example of a father teaching his daughters to play baseball particularly memorable. One daughter takes this as coaching and the other as evaluation, resulting in drastically different reactions.) The authors combine matter-of-fact structured information with a gentle sense of humor and great pacing, making this surprisingly enjoyable to read.

I was feeling oversaturated with information on conversation styles and approaches and still came away from this book with some useful additional structure. If you're struggling with absorbing feedback or finding the right structure to use it constructively instead of getting angry, scared, or depressed, give this a try. It's much better than I had expected.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-05-14

Last modified and spun 2018-05-15