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Using Feedback Effectively

Using Feedback Effectively

Why do people often struggle with feedback and how can we use it more effectively?



Full Transcript

Well, so, after writing ‘Difficult Conversations’, we spent 15 years travelling around helping people with their toughest conversations. We started to notice that feedback was on the list of the conversations that they were struggling with, pretty much 100% percent of the time. Whether they were on the giving side or the receiving side, people weren’t giving or getting honest feedback, problems were festering, etc.


For the first ten years, we did what everybody does which is to help givers know how to give better, right? More skillfully or more clearly. There’s a lot to learn about how to give feedback more effectively. But what we started to notice is that we would go back to the client six months later, a year later and they were all having the same problems. In other words, teaching givers how to give wasn’t helping. Organisations spend billions of dollars every year teaching givers how to give.


Then one day it suddenly occurred to us that in any exchange between giver and receiver, the receiver is the one who’s in charge. They decide what they’re going to let in and the story they’re going to tell about it and whether they decide to change. It also occurred to us that actually if we’re only focusing on teaching givers how to give, it’s a push model of learning.


So, I decide what you as my co-mediator need to learn and I push you to learn it. Maybe we should be focusing on understanding why it’s so hard for all of us to receive feedback and trying to create more pull, where I would have the skills I would need to take charge and to drive my own learning, to balance that out.


Now, one of the first things that became apparent is that feedback really sits at the junction of two core human needs, which is that we all do want to learn and grow and it’s a big piece of happiness research of what makes life satisfying. Which is why many of us started mediating because wow, this was a whole set of skills and things to do that are really interesting and fun to learn and practice and it’s a community, that supports that learning.


The problem is it bumps into the second human need of wanting to be respected and accepted and, in some cases loved, the way that we are now. So, when I get feedback from my co-mediator or anybody else with the parties explicitly or implicitly who are or are not happy with how I’m handling this. It suggests that how I am now is not okay with them.


So I think there’s a tension at the heart of feedback for all of us. That isn’t going to go away but being aware of it can help me manage it a little bit.


The second thing – and this has been one of the most helpful things and I can’t take any credit for it. It comes from Roger Fisher, Alan Sharp and John Richardson, who wrote a book in ’99 called ‘Getting It Done’. They pointed out that actually although we use this word ‘feedback’, there are three different kinds of feedback and the easy way to remember is ACE. So, they have very different purposes and we actually need all three kinds to learn and grow as mediators and as people, spouses, parents whatever.


So, Appreciation says, ‘I see you and I get you and you matter and I notice how hard you’re working at this or that you’ve gotten a lot better at it.’ ‘Coaching’ is what actually helps me get better. Coaching is what I most want from my co-mediator. ‘Here are one or two things in this moment. I had different instincts. Let’s talk about that, why you did what you did and what you might try instead’.


The third kind, though, is ‘Evaluation.’ Evaluation rates or ranks you. It judges whether you’re good and not up to standard, etc. The problem is that we’re hardwired to listen for judgement and evaluation. Do I stack up? Am I good enough? Does this person think I’m good or not good?


So, even when they intend to be coaching, we hear it as evaluation. So, evaluation is the one that makes everybody most anxious and reactive. There is a structural problem, which is, there’s at least a little bit of evaluation embedded in any coaching. Any coaching suggests that you could have done it a little bit better. You’re not yet doing it as well as you might, maybe.


But for me, one of the things that’s been really helpful with being aware of ACE is to think, ‘Okay, what do I need right now? What do I want? And how do I ask for it? So that they understand what I want so that we don’t get a cross transaction where I was hoping for a little bit of encouragement and appreciation but what I get is, 12 things I need to fix or their disappoint that they had to mediate with me. I screwed it all up.


They’re thinking, ‘Ugh, I can’t believe I agreed to work with this person. Now I’ve got to fix all of her problems as well as the parties’ problems.’ So, very quickly, one of the questions that we started using when we’re coaching each other, whether that’s when we’re consulting or mediating or teaching or whatever, is the question, ‘What’s one thing you see me doing or maybe I’m failing to do that you think is getting in my own way?’ or you can contextualize it, ‘What’s one thing you think I could change that would make a big difference?’ And it’s not, ‘Is there anything?’


If you ask, ‘Is there anything?’ They’ll say ‘No, you’re great. You’re great.’ Sort of. It’s assuming there’s at least one thing. So, just pick one. So, it’s kind of lowering the stakes on the exchange and you’re most likely to get coaching because, what you’re asking is for something to improve or think about or see another option that in the moment I didn’t think of.


You know, if I ask that, every once in a while of various people around me all get stuff to think about. Oftentimes I’ll start to hear themes of things I should be thinking about and working on. So, after we do a programme, we have that conversation in each direction, ‘All right, so what’s one thing you think I should change?’ I don’t think we can change everything at once either.


And by the way, when you ask, if you ask it in person, you’ll get an answer straight away. You’ll think, ‘You’ve been carrying this around with you for years, and you never told me before.’ And then what will often happen is the next morning, you’ll get an email with all the things that they thought of overnight. They’re like, ‘Oh, I should have said this, not that. This is so much more important.’ Right?


So, often what people will say is, ‘You know, I asked my dad who I work with and I got this like long email. Apparently he’s been holding all this stuff back.’ And sometimes they have, but they’re really trying to help.


So, it’s been interesting to me how it enriches the conversation in a way that feels a little less threatening if I can remove the judgement from it, ‘Am I good or bad?’ or a little bit. The other thing is, as you know, we care a lot about internal reactions and internal voices, as our bent for how to combat these problems.


What we started to notice is we all have these triggered reactions to feedback. So when you do hear the coaching, occasionally you’ll think, ‘That’s true. That is something I should work on.’ And that’s really interesting. Other times you’ll think, ‘Okay, well that’s just not what happened or not actually true or didn’t understand the constraints I was under or it just wouldn’t work or it’s not who I am.’


And we’re really good, as human beings, at wrong-spotting when feedback is incoming, looking for what’s wrong with it because, if I can find what’s wrong with it, then I can said it aside and safely move on with my life, my ego intact.


But if it’s right, I need to keep worrying about it. The problem is that first of all, as human beings we just have instant trigger reactions, three kinds – truth, relationship and identity. Truth is, ‘Would it work? Is it accurate? Is it fair?’ It’s all about the what of the feedback or coaching. The second is relationship, which has to do with, ‘Who gave me the coaching.’


So, a lot of times, it’s like, ‘You’re worse at this than I am,’ or, ‘You don’t really know what you’re talking about. You totally mis-stepped and created that situation.’ It’s all about the relationship with them, what we think of them and how we feel treated by them.


Then the third is identity, which is in the case is the story I tell. And the sensitivity to feedback varies hugely, like 3,000% in terms of how upset we get and how long it takes us to recover.


So, the short answer to what to do about those triggers is that the fact that I have a triggered reaction at the end of the story is the beginning of the story. There will always be something wrong with all the feedback I get. So, I’m asking myself two questions. What’s wrong with it? That’s very satisfying. Go out for a glass of wine with a friend, make a list of all the things that are wrong with the feedback of this person.


Then I have to ask, ‘Is there anything that might be right about it? Is there anything for me to learn here? Because 90% of it can be wrong but that last 10% might be, actually, exactly what I need to start thinking about.’

About the mediator

Sheila Heen Mediator Harvard

Sheila is an experienced negotiator and mediator and a Founder of Triad Consulting Group. Sheila is also a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and has spent the last twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, developing negotiation theory and practice. She specializes in particularly difficult negotiations – where emotions run high and relationships become strained. Sheila is co-author of the New York Times Business Bestsellers Dif... View Mediator