Thanks for the Feedback: Notes & Review

thanks for the feedback book cover

Thanks for the Feedback (2014) is a communication skills book focusing on the art and science of feedback: how you can give it, how you can take it and how you can make the most of it.

Bullet Summary

  • To get the most out of feedback change your identity, switch to a growth mindset
  • The story you tell yourself about the feedback will affect how you take it and act on it (and you control the story through emotions and thoughts)
  • Always look at feedback as the intersection of two realities (what you see is not the same they see)

Full Summary

About The Authors: Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen are two business consultants who have spent decades helping people and corporations. They focus on communication, learning techniques, and communication.
Douglas Stone is a lecturer at Harvard Law School, and so is Sheila Heen.

Introduction

Learning about ourselves can be painful.
Especially if we accept with the idea of “I’m not good enough as I am”. That’s what makes feedback difficult.
But we can all improve in both receiving and giving feedback. That’s what Thanks for the Feedback is all about.

Receiving Feedback Well

Receiving feedback well does not necessarily mean accepting the feedback.

It means engaging in the conversation skillfully, making good choices on whether and how to use the information and managing our emotional triggers so that we don’t get defensive.

Here are the two crucial steps to receiving feedback well:

  1. Avoid looking for “what’s wrong with the feedback” first thing
  2. Make sure you understand what’s being said

And, I would add:

  • Even if it sounds strange, ask yourself “what if this were true”

The Three Types of Feedback

There are three main types of feedback:

  • Appreciation (build relationship, appreciate and encourage)
  • Coaching (help someone grow, change and improve)
  • Evaluation (comparisons against others or a standard; align expectations, inform decision making)

We need all three of them.
Appreciation might seem like it’s not even a feedback. But not relationship can stay healthy without enough appreciation.

1. Appreciation

Three qualities are necessary for a good appreciation feedback:

  1. Specific
  2. Come in a form the receiver values and understands (check The 5 love languages)
  3. Authentic (it must be deserved)

The Three Feedback Triggers

When we get defensive because of a feedback is usually because it triggers strong reactions in one of the following areas:

  • Truth triggers

Truth triggers means understanding whether the feedback is true or not.
It can be more complex than we think, and most of Thanks for the Feedback is also aimed helping us understanding how to skillfully analyze the feedback.

  • Identity triggers

Identity is the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
If the feedback challenges the idea we have of ourselves, it’s possible it will be highly destabilizing for us and we can either lash back or reject the feedback outright.
The author says that a huge determinant of how we take feedback at an identity level is whether we have a fixed or growth mindset.

  • Relationship triggers
    • Do we like the person giving us the feedback?
    • Did the feedback giver treat us well?
    • Do we trust them / are they credible?

Often we react more to the person giving us the feedback than to feedback itself.
It might be the way they say it “how dare you talk to me like that” or “you’re a fine one to talk”.
Relationship triggers risk to put two different “tracks” on the table that we should better not mix: our relationship and the feedback itself. Treat them separately.

None of these reactions are necessarily wrong, but they shouldn’t stop us from tackling the feedback and looking dispassionately at the information the feedback carries.

Having a reaction to a feedback is not a problem in and of itselt. But it’s a problem if it stops from engaging fully in the feedback conversation, which it can easily do.
Knowing and understanding our triggers will help us locate the source of our issues with the feedback and within us.

Roadblocks to Good Feedback

  • Different data (we might be looking at different data)
  • Interpretation (we might interpret the same data with our own biases and preferences)
  • Psychological biases (we assign good intentions to ourselves, but not always to others)
  • Blind spots (what we don’t see about ourselves that others see; ie.: our body language, knowledge gap etc.)

Overall, the authors say, nothing guarantees “objective” feedback and there is always an element of subjectivity.
Even when feedback is given based on strict numbers, someone still had to pick those numbers to evaluate us against.

Strive For A System Level View

Often feedback is given in a way that communicates “you are this way (and it’s a problem)”.
But often the problem is not in one person, but in the intersection between two persons.

For example, a person snoring might not be a problem if the partner didn’t have a light sleep. It’s the intersection between light sleep and snoring that creates the issue.

The solution is to look at the problem from a system perspective. There is a reality, and there are several contributing factors to it, including all the people who are giving and receiving feedback.
Here are the levels you should look at:

  • You + me intersection (personal differences)
  • Roles clashes (is our issue part of the different role we have)
  • Environment (processes, laws, other players)

Feedback Profiles

We can recognize a few of archetypes of people when it comes to receiving feedback:

  • Blame absorbers

They fail to explore the intersection of the problem, how everyone is contributing. And they always take the whole blame, which sometimes it means they feel terrible about it (and it’s often related to low self esteem).
Another issue of blame absorbers is that they can easily build resentment over time.

  • Blame shifters

They never acknowledge their roles in the problem.
“It’s him, not me”, “it’s the new update that screwed up everything”, “it’s a set up against me”.
It’s not relaxing to avoid blame, it’s exhausting to always having to shift blame. And it’s a very weak way to approach life.

How Baseline Personality Affects Feedback

Our baseline personality also heavily affects how we receive feedback.

1. Baseline Behavior

People who are generally happy and content and with a high self esteem take feedback better.
People who are generally unhappy, dissatisfied and with low self esteem take negative feedback harder.

2. Swings

There are differences in the mood swings people experience

3. Sustain / Recovery

There is also a difference in personalities when it comes to “moving on” from feedback, whether positive or negative, giving rise to four different possible mixes:

  • Recovering quickly from negative feedback
  • Recovering slowly from negative feedback
  • Sustaining joy for positive feedback for a long time
  • Sustaining joy for positive feedback only for a short time

The result is a quadrant, where ideally one would recover quickly from negative feedback while staying happy for the longest time on positive feedback.

My Note:
Ideally I think you should aim and not being impacted by “negative” feedback at all. 

This is what Ray Dalio calls “looking at yourself from above as if you were a machine”. Also check Ultimate Power.

The authors say that we can change our wiring, which is true.

How Our Stories Affect Feedback

A major component of how we react (and act) on our feedback is the story we tell ourselves about it.

The authors say that thoughts + feelings = stories.

That means that what we think about the feedback and how we feel when we receive it will determine what we tell ourselves about the feedback.
And that will ultimately influence how we react and how we act upon that feedback.
To control how we feel and act on the feedback, we must control feelings and thoughts.

Feelings
For example, if we are super tense while we receive a feedback from our boss, we tend to see it more defensively because our body is in fight or flight response (the response we have to a threat).
Calming ourselves down is a great way to positively influence how we will receive the feedback and how we will think about it.

Thoughts
The thoughts are what we tell ourselves about the feedback, and we have an easier time in controlling them. There is also a strong connection between thoughts and feelings, as thoughts can also generate the feelings.
By controlling our thoughts we influence how we receive and act on the feedback.

Strategies to Get The Most Out of Feedback

  • Be prepared
  • Think about what the worst could be an accept it (same strategy in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living)
  • Separate stories from feelings and feedback (this is self awareness)
  • Separate the feedback (not being at great at X does not make you bad at Y or at your life in general)
  • Step back from it (take the perspective as if you were coaching a friend)
  • Look at it from 10 years from now (not such a big deal anymore right?)
  • Accept you can’t control how they see you

Increasing Ability to Take Feedback: Identity and Growth Mindsets

The three biggest aspects you can change to accept feedback are:

Without a more resilient identity our tendency is to simply reject the feedback to defend ourselves. With a more resilient identity we don’t have to accept the feedback in any case, but at least we can look at it rationally (and give ourselves a chance at growing).

Recognizing Bad Feedback

Some feedback might not be useful or it might not be motivated by a real willingness to help.
There is no exact formula to recognize, but here are a few ways to spot them:

  • The feedback entails a critique of the type “you’ll never do anything in life”
  • You ask for a change in feedback style but it keeps coming the way it hurts you most
  • You change but there is always something more they criticize you for
  • The feedback holds the relationship hostage (ie.: “feel free not to take the feedback, but if you don’t we’re done”
  • The feedback is a threat, not a warning
  • It’s always only you who has to change

Also watch out for relationship partners who tell you that you are the only one who has to change. That’s an hallmark of abusive men and abusive relationships.

Turning Down Feedback

You can say “thank you, but not now” or “not now, not like that, I need time and space”.
The authors also recommend you learn to use “and” instead of “but” to make your communication more appreciative while still being firm at the same time.

Take More Time
The first time you hear a strong feedback you might naturally get defensive, or end up take more blame than you really should.
Give yourself time ! Say that you didn’t expect to hear it and that you need to think about it.

thanks for the feedback book cover

Real Life Applications

Give Yourself Time
Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t let people rush you in to say anything. If you receive a strong and unexpected feedback, say you didn’t expect it and you need to think about it.

Calm Yourself Down When Receiving Feedback
Calm yourself down or help the person receiving your feedback calm down when they receive your feedback. This way, you will not perceive the feedback as a threat.

Think Positively About the Feedback
Always look at the feedback as an opportunity to improve.

Look at The System
When you want to give a feedback, always consider the whole situation and how you are contributing to the problem.

If You’re Defensive… 
… Always ask yourself “what could be right about this feedback”

Don’t Swarm People With Feedback 
If there are many things to say, pick the top one they can focus on. You can also ask them what they are most interested in.

Use Positive Feedback to Spur Groups to Action
When you have to give feedback to a group for not conforming to something, say thank you to those who have done it already. You make a compliment, and those who haven’t done it yet will be gently reminded. It’s more effective like that.

40% of Happiness is Interpretation
Research suggests that 50% of our happiness is inborn, 40% is how we interpret things and 10% is circumstances.
Also read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

CONS

  • Terrible Audiobook Voice

The male narrator (whom I believe is the author himself Douglas Stone) might have a good speaking voice, warm and soothing.
However, it’s not a good voice to read audiobooks, where you need clear voice and perfect diction.
His voice is too “airy” (check Roger Love’s work).

I struggled to understand him and cheered every time the woman started speaking instead (whom I believe is the author herself Sheila Heen).

  • Could Have Been Shorter?

“Thanks for the Feedback” is quite long.
Most parts are very helpful and add loads of value, but I think it might have been more condensed.

PROS

Deep, Deep Insight
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen touch on the deep psychological triggers here. This is stuff that can really improve people’s lives (ie.: identity, growth mindset).

Great Examples
Same for Crucial Conversations, I loved the examples.

Review

I was thinking:

“Wow, Thanks for The Feedback is AWESOME!”

And then I realized it was from the same writers of Crucial Conversations, a previous book I’ve already plenty lauded and given 5 stars to.
And then, it made sense.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen write are some of the best authors out there.
They know people’s psychology and they know their way around social skills.

For example, they say they don’t know enough about the brain, which is exactly what knowledgeable people do. And then they proceed to give you a highly relevant and deep overview of how our brain wiring affects feedback.
Hats off.

I think their books are some of the most underrated books out there.

Read more summaries or get the book on Amazon

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