Feedback 101: The Most Important Course You Never Took

Mark Sagor



“A skilled [feedback] giver is great, but mostly our lives are populated by everyone else, folks who aren’t so skilled, have their own issues, or are too busy to really give us the time we need. If you’re going to take charge of your own learning you’ve got to get good at learning from these people too. A skillful and thoughtful receiver can draw value out of any feedback – even off-base, poorly timed, or poorly delivered feedback.”

-Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen, Thanks for the Feedback

Given how absolutely fundamental feedback is to the process of learning it’s bewildering that schools don’t offer courses on the subject.

Feedback is the secret sauce of self-improvement. Getting better at something-like your profession, marriage or golf game-requires two things: practice and the ability to receive feedback well.

Feedback gives us an additional set of eyes to illuminate our blind spots and focus us on the right behaviors to practice.

If your practicing the wrong things you are not going to get any better.

Some feedback is as easy as a summer day, like when your boss tells you that the presentation you just delivered was pitch perfect. No problem for most of us to hear that(leaving aside people with issues around accepting compliments).

Other feedback however can be harder to learn from, like when someone with whom you’re angry tells you something you really don’t agree with and does it in an off-putting way. That type of situation requires serious feedback receiving skills.

That person with whom your angry could be your spouse, child, colleague or boss and it just might be crucial for you to understand what they are trying to say. It may be what you need to hear to get better at something important to you.

If there was a course for Feedback 101, the textbook would be the new book just released by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Thanks for the Feedback is a practical roadmap to mastering the art of receiving feedback and reaping the rewards of greater self-awareness, better relationships and improved performance.

Stone & Heen summarize the three most common attributes of feedback that impair our ability to receive it:

  1. Truth triggers- inaccuracies in the feedback
  2. Relationship triggers- issues we may have with the person giving the feedback
  3. Identity triggers- the feedback conflicts with our self-concept

These triggers are obstacles not because they are unreasonable or wrong but because they diminish our ability to listen carefully and engage skillfully in the conversation. When our emotions hijack the conversation we may sacrifice an opportunity for learning.

Understanding these triggers helps neutralize their power.

The authors also provide a useful model of three distinct types of feedback:

  1. Appreciation- to acknowledge, motivate, thank
  2. Coaching- to improve capabilities and skills
  3. Evaluation- to rank against a standard

Feedback problems are likely to occur when the receiver expects or seeks a different type of feedback than the giver provides. If you are looking for a pat on the back you may be less open to receiving coaching on how to improve your performance. On the other hand, if your seeking specific guidance on how to do your job better, a pat on the back may feel inadequate.

Understanding these dynamics can help you get the conversation back on track rather than walking away angry or disheartened.

Thanks for the Feedback lights a candle in the feedback darkness and illuminates the forest of professional and personal feedback we must navigate every day.