“Umm… your meatloaf stinks.” A Review of Thanks for the Feedback

I recently interviewed Doug Stone, who was my professor years ago at Harvard Law School.  Together with Sheila Heen, Doug authored Thanks for the Feedback.  At his request, this blog shares portions of our conversation, as well as my own thinking about this terrific new book.

Donny’s Question:  In your book you mention that many people focus on how to give feedback, while you have chosen to focus on how to receive feedback well.  Why?

Doug’s Answer:  Doug explained that most people focus on teaching people how to GIVE feedback.  That is natural – after all, the giver, who is often more senior, has important information for how the receiver can improve.  And indeed there are definitely strategies for becoming more effective at giving feedback.

One of the major contributions this book makes to the field, however, is that it flips that equation on its head.  Thanks for the Feedback focuses on the recipient of the feedback, and asks, “How can we make people better at receiving feedback?”  As Doug pointed out to me, if you want feedback conversations to be more effective, there is far more leverage in improving the recipient’s skill than the giver’s skill.  After all, the recipient is the one who decides what the feedback means, whether to listen to it, and how to put it into practice.

Donny’s Perspective:  I completely agree with Doug and Sheila that the best way to improve a stuck situation is to change oneself – that’s one of the main ideas in my book. Why?  Because that is where we have leverage.  We cannot control other people, but we can (at least try to) control ourselves.  Thus Doug and Sheila’s approach to feedback, which  involves improving our own skills in receiving feedback, is one that has tremendous value.

Donny’s Question:  I found your distinction between Appreciation, Coaching and Evaluation particularly helpful.  Can you explain what each of these is, and why differentiating between them is so important?

Doug’s Answer:  Doug pointed out that people tend to think of feedback as a jumble of whatever they are told about themselves.  However, it is useful to notice and categorize these different types of feedback.  (He explained that these three categories were taken from the book Getting It Done and appear in Thanks for the Feedback because they are very descriptive and helpful).

Evaluation is a ranking or rating – against your own objectives or some external standard.  If I say, “You have made meat loaf for 30 days this month, and this is your 17th best one,” that would be evaluation.  Evaluation is useful, Doug explained, because people need to know where they stand.  It is also useful to have an “evaluative floor,” a threshold level of skill or quality that people need to reach at a minimum.

Appreciation is the hardest to define, but it includes recognizing, acknowledging, encouraging – it is all the emotional stuff that helps people feel valued.  It is distinct from evaluation, which means that a person can screw something up, yet you can still show appreciation for the fact that they are trying.  An example would be saying, “I really appreciate that you made me dinner tonight,”  despite the fact that the meat loaf did not taste good at all.

Doug pointed out that the category that people tend to focus on most, of course, is coaching.  This is feedback that answers the question “How do I improve?”  Coaching may sound like “When you serve me the meatloaf, it would be much better to defrost it first.”  All of three of these categories are important, however, and it is useful to recognize them so that we can align the goals of the giver and the receiver in a feedback conversation.

Donny’s Perspective:  I find breaking feedback down into these different categories immensely helpful.  In working with coaching clients, I frequently provide them with feedback, drawn from interviews I have done with their colleagues, managers and direct reports, as well as my own observations of their behavior.  And after my conversation with Doug I realized that I could describe much of my feedback conversations as toggling between appreciation and coaching.  Why?  Companies hire me to help key executives improve; thus, coaching is at the core of the messages I need to share.  Nevertheless, coaching is worthless if the person being coached does not take in the feedback.  Thus, appreciation – of the effort the person is making, of the difficulty of the challenge, of their openness to even try to work on their areas of weakness – is key to keeping that person open to feedback.

Donny’s Question:  I can think of a number of times where I got feedback that I really felt was simply wrong.  But at the same time, as you point out in the book, most feedback exists in an area that is my blind spot, so just because it feels wrong doesn’t mean it is.  What is your advice for differentiating between a true blind spot, and feedback that is just off base? 

Doug’s Answer:  Doug explained that one cannot really tell the difference, not at the beginning.  Rather, handling a feedback conversation skillfully entails delaying that question long enough to have a constructive discussion about the content of the feedback, exploring what it means and if there is something to learn from it.

He also pointed out that receiving feedback skillfully does not necessarily mean accepting the feedback.  If you received feedback that you dress inappropriately, for example, you don’t have to simply agree, or disagree.  Rather, you can say, “Okay, let me understand why you feel my attire is inappropriate.”  You can also share why you feel your attire is appropriate.

Doug shared three pieces of advice regarding feedback that may be in your blind spot:

First, if you get feedback that you think is off base, but keep getting that same feedback again and again, that is a clue that you may have a blind spot.  Second, when receiving feedback that you think is wrong, try turning to other people that you trust – friends, colleagues, family members – and sharing the comments with them.  You may find that they have the same perspective as your feedback giver, a further clue that this may be a blind spot.  And finally, if you have doubts about the feedback, you might nonetheless try incorporating the feedback into your behavior, just to see what happens.  That is, you might try dressing differently, and observe if people react any differently to you.

Donny’s Perspective:  I found Doug’s distinction between receiving feedback well on the one hand, and acting on the feedback on the other, to be very powerful.  When we disagree with someone, our instinctive reaction is to reject what they say, and indeed the conversation that ensues is frequently nothing more than a battle to prove why we are right.  In a skillful conversation one should suspend disbelief, temporarily, in order to explore and evaluate what the other person means.  Maintaining an open mind in this way is by no means easy, but it is a skill that can be learned, and the payoff is enormous.