When authors Doug Stone and Bruce Patton were researching their book Difficult Conversations they asked people what they felt was the most difficult conversation to have both in their personal lives and in their career. Time and time again people pointed to conversations involving feedback. They didn’t like giving it and they especially didn’t like receiving it, even when the feedback was meant to be constructive.
Yet knowing how to give and receive feedback is essential for our personal and professional growth. To remedy the discomfort we have with it, most books and articles focus on how the giver of feedback can take the sting out of its delivery with tactics like the ever-popular “criticism sandwich.” But Doug Stone argues in his latest book that when it comes to feedback, we should be focusing on how we can be better receivers of it.
Stone is the co-author of the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well and today he joins me on the show to discuss why even constructive criticism is so hard to take, as well as brass-tacks advice on how you can be less defensive and more open to the feedback you receive on a daily basis. You’ll want to take notes on this episode. It’s crammed with information that can improve your life immediately.
- Why giving and receiving feedback is such a difficult conversation to have
- Why focusing on how to improve giving feedback gets things backwards in making feedback more effective
- The two needs people have that make receiving feedback difficult
- The three “triggers” that make people defensive to feedback
- The three types of feedback that we get and why it’s important to know the difference
- Why you should give specific appreciation when giving feedback
- How evaluation feedback and coaching feedback get mixed together and why that creates problems
- The assumptions you need to change when receiving feedback
- The type of feedback you should be giving to a beginner
- How to overcome the knee-jerk reaction to prove the feedback you’re getting is wrong
- The blindspots that naturally occur when giving and getting feedback and how to overcome them
- What Louis C.K. can teach us as to why relationships can cause us to receive feedback poorly
- How our temperament can affect how we receive feedback
- Why you need to shift to a growth mindset when receiving feedback
- How to reject feedback with tact
- How to manage online feedback
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Give and Take Criticism
- The Narrative Fallacy
- My podcast with Caroline Webb on How to Have a Good Day
- How to Give Compliments
- How to Accept a Compliment
- Avoid Me/Always/Everything Thinking
- My podcast with Frances Cole Jones on How to Wow
- Lucky Louie
- My podcast with Carol Dweck on fixed and growth mindsets
- Managing Social Status in the Modern World
Thanks for the Feedback is packed with actionable advice that will allow you to receive feedback better than you are doing today. I’ve already seen an immediate ROI by implementing a few of Doug’s tips.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When authors Doug Stone and Bruce Patent were researching their book, Difficult Conversations, they ask people what they thought was their most difficult conversation to have in both their personal lives and in their career and time and time again people pointed to conversations involving feedback. They didn’t like giving it and they especially didn’t like receiving it, even when the feedback was meant to be constructive. Here’s the thing, knowing how to give and receive feedback is essential for our personal and professional growth.
To remedy the discomfort we have with feedback, most books and articles focus on how the giver of the feedback can take the sting out of his delivery with tactics like the ever popular criticism sandwich but Doug Stone argues that in his latest book, when it comes to feedback we should be focusing on how we can be better receivers of it. Stone is the author of the book, Thanks for the Feedback the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, and today he joins me on the show to discuss why constructive criticism is so hard to take as well as brass tacks advice on how you can be less defensive and more open to the feedback you receive on a daily basis. You want to take notes with this episode, it’s crammed with information that can improve your life immediately. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/feedback.
Doug Stone, welcome to the show.
Doug Stone: Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are the author of a book called Thanks for the Feedback. You previously wrote a book called Difficult Conversations, co-authored a book called Difficult Conversations. It was a great book. I read that one as well but what I thought was interesting in the researching and writing of that book, you all uncovered that the most difficult conversation that people reported having was giving and receiving feedback. What is about feedback that just makes it hard to give and people hate doing it?
Doug Stone: Yeah. Well I had this sort of weird job where, among other things, I go into organizations or communities or work with families and one of the first questions I ask them, I’m working with them on communication, how to communicate more clearly, one of the first questions are what are some of your hardest conversations? What are some examples? We make a list and pretty much without fail, they’ll always put giving and receiving feedback on the list and that applies whether it’s some global corporation or just some small group. It seems to be a universal theme and challenge, getting feedback, giving feedback, and so once we started realizing that that was such a common pattern we decided to really try and focus on that question.
Brett McKay: What I thought was interesting the way you guys approached this though is that, most books and articles and things you see about how to make feedback better focus on the giver. You do the compliment sandwich, start off with something good you like, give the feedback, and then end with a compliment, but argue in the book that that gets the solution to the problem backwards and instead we should focus on the receiver of the feedback. Why is that?
Doug Stone: Yeah, the compliment sandwich, by the way, it’s not a terrible idea. The idea of starting positive, then negative, then positive, but the problem is of course if you gave someone a sandwich that had bread, ham, and bread, they wouldn’t call it a bread sandwich or a bread, ham, and bread sandwich, they’d just call it a ham sandwich because they know the thing in the middle is the important part. The challenge of the compliment sandwich is, especially if people notice that it’s a pattern, they kind of dismiss the positive stuff and then they just take on the negative stuff so it doesn’t end up serving the purpose that maybe it should.
Our angle on this was to focus on the people receiving the feedback rather than the people giving the feedback, and again from where I sit we were getting called in by organizations to help train their managers in how to give feedback better, which makes sense to us, so we went and we did that, and we did it a bunch and over time what we found is people that we were working with would say, “Yeah this is helping a little bit. People are getting better at it, but the whole system still isn’t working as well as we’re hoping or as well as we’d like.”
We started thinking about that and we were thinking what else can we teach people about how to give feedback? It suddenly dawned on us, just like stunningly obvious, that there are two people in that conversation. There’s a feedback giver and a feedback receiver and we’re focusing all our energy on how do you get better as a feedback giver and there’s only so far you can go. You can go from not good to pretty good or pretty good to very good, but at the end of the day the person who is deciding what that feedback means, whether to take it, is the person on the receiving end. We started looking at the whole question from that point of view.
Brett McKay: Right and that can be a hard sell to say for the receiver to improving how they receive feedback. It’s like, “Listen here, I got this feedback I’m going to give you, what you’re doing wrong and here’s how you can actually listen to me better.”
Doug Stone: It is a hard sell, exactly. Yeah, go ahead.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean it’s a hard sell. Let’s talk about this. What makes receiving feedback so difficult? You argue in the book there’s two tensions inside of us that make receiving feedback sort of hard to swallow.
Doug Stone: Yeah. As human beings we all have two driving needs, well we have a bunch of them but among others we have two and one is we do want to learn and get better and improve and if you ask anybody whether they want to learn and get better and improve, everybody says yes. At the same time we want to feel like the people around us, the people we work with, the people we live with, the people we care about, accept us and love us and appreciate us the way we are now and so we, on the one hand, we want to get better, which means we need to hear feedback, take it, engage with it. On the other hand, we are kind of stuck because we’re thinking well what does that mean? If they’re giving me all this feedback, what does that mean about me? What does that mean about whether I’m okay the way I am now, and so it’s a difficult place to be and it’s not because there’s something wrong with any individual person that they don’t like getting feedback. I think it’s pretty universal.
Brett McKay: Right. You say there’s three obstacles, or what you call triggers, that blocks us from getting to that point where we want to get better. We listen to feedback to get better and these triggers cause us to get defensive. What are those obstacles?
Doug Stone: Yeah, so when we studied this we realized there’s a million reasons people don’t take feedback and you could just make a huge list and say here’s the million reason why we’d get in trouble but what a reader or somebody who’s learning about this can’t really do anything with a list of a million reasons or even 50 reasons, so what we try to do is just break them down into three key categories, three kinds of triggers that we all have that can set us off.
The first is the most obvious, which is what we call the truth trigger and this just, if I get feedback that says, “You’re dominating that meeting or you were talking over people,” and I’m thinking that’s just wrong, either because I don’t think I was talking that much or in an extreme example maybe I wasn’t at the meeting so it’s like literally actually wrong. If we get feedback that we think is wrong, we’re not going to take it and reading this book about feedback, people think, “Well, so if receiving feedback is a good thing and that’s how you learn, does that mean I have to take all feedback, even if it’s wrong?” Of course the answer is no. We have enough feedback that’s right and useful, we don’t need to be taking feedback that’s actually wrong, that’s going to send us in the wrong direction. The key around the truth trigger, and we can get more into this in a bit, isn’t that well we should just assume all feedback is helpful and right and accurate, but just that we’re probably rejecting feedback before we even understand what it actually means and that’s a common pattern.
A second trigger is what we call relationship triggers and this is not so much about the substance of the feedback, it’s not so much about content of what someone’s saying but just sort of who that person is, who’s the person giving it to me. We’re going to hear feedback differently if it comes from our spouse or our partner or our parents or our boss or our child or our neighbor or someone we like, someone we don’t like, someone we trust, someone we don’t trust, and we tend to let the who dominate the what and in our view it’s important just to separate those out. To think about who’s giving me this feedback and what’s my reaction to it but even if I don’t necessarily trust this person, is there anything that might be legitimate or useful to me in what they’re saying?
The third trigger is what we call identity triggers. This is mostly about what does this feedback say about who I am and how I see myself? When feedback feels, you get feedback that you’re not a good parent or not a good boyfriend or the presentation didn’t go well, it’s very easy to let that get out of control and just start thinking, “Well what does this mean about me? What kind of person am I? What do people really think about me?” We start getting so lost in that that we’re not really even taking in the feedback anymore.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Let’s go into these triggers and how to overcome them in more detail. The truth trigger, you start off in that section about breaking down the types of feedback that we get. You say there’s three, there’s appreciation feedback, coaching feedback, and evaluation feedback. Can you briefly describe what each type of feedback looks like and they’ll we’ll talk about how those things can get mixed together and cause problems.
Doug Stone: Yeah, exactly. Imagine your partner or roommate or spouse has been cooking meals for you in the evening and let’s say they’ve made meatloaf for the last 30 nights. Let’s say you want to give feedback on this meatloaf, appreciation would say, “Honey I’m so grateful to you for putting all this time in, making the meatloaf, it means a lot to me.” That’s appreciation. We know what that is. Coaching would be offering advice on how the meatloaf could improve. You might say, “I think the meatloaf tastes better if it’s fully defrosted before it’s served,” so you might have some little cooking tips there. Evaluation sort of ranks the person or the effort. You might say, “Well we’ve been having this 30 days in a row and day 17 this feedback was in the top third of all the meatloaf that you’ve made.”
Each of these, appreciation, coaching, and evaluation have different purposes behind them and as you say, and we can get into, they get sort of mixed up and that’s one of the things that makes feedback the toughest.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so let’s talk about how can they get mixed up and why does that cause problems?
Doug Stone: One of the first things that happens is that appreciation just drops out and in the workplace I think people just feel like, “Well, we’re busy, people are getting a paycheck,” and the negative feedback is always an emergency. You’ve got to turn this document in, you’ve got to get this out, those are emergencies. It’s never an emergency to pull somebody aside and say, “Thank you, that was a really great effort.” Appreciation can easily drop out but studies have shown that the U.S. Department of Labor did a couple studies where they found that over 90% of American workers feel underappreciated at work, which is kind of a staggering statistic and a similar stat, they found that people who leave their jobs voluntary, in other words they’re not fired but they quit, cite a lack of appreciation as the number one reason. About 50% of people say it’s lack of appreciation as the number one reason. When appreciation drops out, it really has a potentially very negative effect on the relationship.
Appreciation, as with the feedback sandwich that we started with, we can often give appreciation that sounds like, we say, “Hey, great job,” that’s the appreciation. Then the things we want them to do differently, we say, “I’ve got a list of a hundred things that I want you to change,” and then at the end we say, “By the way great job.” The positive appreciation is incredible general and it’s not attached to anything and the person has no reason to believe that it means anything. Then the negative things, the things that actually need some action are very specific and it’s actually quite useful to try to offer specific appreciation, specific positive things that the person is doing well, partly because it makes them feel good and partly also that teaches them that those are things that they should keep doing.
One of the key challenges is that appreciation drops out and that can be rough on the relationship. The other key thing that, sort of common dynamic, is that coaching and evaluation gets confused and that we often hear coaching as evaluation and I’ll give you an example. Just a simple example, imagine you’re driving and you have a passenger and you can imagine whoever you want as your passenger but the passenger just says, “Hey, slow down, you’re driving too fast.” What’s the message there? You could hear that in two ways. You could hear that as coaching like, drive a little bit slower, it’s safer, that’s going to be a useful tip around your driving skills or you could hear it as evaluation, like, “You’re a reckless person,” or, “You don’t care about safety.”
The person might be saying one or the other of those but as human beings we often tend to hear the evaluation that’s giving and the coaching drops out so the part that’s going to help us actually get better at something if somebody has actual driving tips for us that might be useful for us, we’re not going to hear them if we just get into an argument about, “Why are you always criticizing my driving, etc.”
Brett McKay: How do you separate coaching and evaluation? When someone’s giving you feedback do you stop the conversations like, “Are you trying to offer some advice or are you evaluating me?” Do you have to be so obvious about it or are there subtle ways to separate the two?
Doug Stone: Yeah, I think in like a formal work conversation you can separate them out just by literally raising them. Saying like, “Is this the purpose of this conversation to rate me in someway, to rank me or is it coaching?” In personal conversations, a big thing that I’ve been working on in my own life is just trying to change the default assumption that I have about what the person is doing because very often my default assumption, and I think this is true for a lot of us, is that I hear it as evaluation. I hear it as just criticism about who I am so their comment again my driving or the way I dress or my presentation, it’s very easy to hear it as you’re not good enough, there’s something wrong with you, you’re an idiot, whatever, and that’s my sort of default.
If I’m giving a presentation and there’s a break and someone comes up to me and says, “Hey you know I think it’d be good if we did an exercise after the break.” That sounds pretty clearly like it’s intended as coaching, it’s intended as advice to help me do something better but if I’m hearing it as evaluation, which is my own tendency, than I’m just going to hear it as, “Your presentation stinks and we just wanted you to know that.” From now I feel bad plus there’s nothing I can do. It’s like okay you don’t think I’m good at this but that’s where we’re at. If I hear it as coaching, it’s not a critique, it’s not an evaluation, it’s not a ranking, it’s just an idea, that I can try to take on board or not, something that will help me learn and improve and get better, which is pretty much the whole point of the feedback in the first place.
Brett McKay: Yeah and I think another point you made too is when you ask for feedback make sure you know what you’re actually looking for. I think sometimes people ask for feedback from people and when you ask someone, I want some feedback, they’re thinking, “Oh they want me to coach them or evaluate this,” but the askers really wanting some appreciation, like, “Hey you did a good job, keep going at it,” and then they don’t get that and they get all upset.
Doug Stone: Yeah. Exactly. I’ve been taking some guitar lessons recently just trying to pick up from my high school guitar skills and I’m a pretty rudimentary guitar player to say the least and I had to sort of learn this one thing and I played it for my teacher and what I really wanted was for my teacher to say, “Wow look at that,” like you actually played something and it almost sounded like something. What he said instead was, “Okay, so here’s a couple ways you could fix that or improve that,” I was just thinking this is not meeting me where I’m at right now. It’s very easy to get those confused and it can be rough when that happens.
Brett McKay: I think that’s some good insight for the giver of feedback. When someone’s starting out with something, a beginner, they probably need more appreciation, more positive evaluation to keep them going and then as they get better that’s when you can start giving more of the coaching and the fine tuning.
Doug Stone: Yeah, exactly. I had a teaching assistant once who kept saying, “Give me more coaching. Give me more coaching,” and I kept saying like, “Okay, so next time you could do this differently and this differently,” and then she would say, “No, but give me more coaching.” It was sort of like she kind of wouldn’t stop. I was thinking like wow, I’ve told you everything I know and I don’t know how much more of this you can even take on board. Finally it occurred to me, she’s asking for advice on how to improve but I hadn’t really given much global appreciation and I just sort of stepped back and I said, “You know, something occurs to me that I haven’t said which is, you’re just really good at this. If you keep doing this, you’re going to be good at this. You have a lot of passion and talent for this.”
She was just so, that was exactly where she was at. That was what she needed to hear and as you say I think that’s right, especially at the beginning when people are trying to get their feet under them, that kind of feedback can be more important than any other, than the best most brilliant piece of advice.
Brett McKay: Going back to this truth obstacle, one of our knee jerk reactions when we receive feedback is trying to find out why that feedbacks wrong. Why is this guy wrong and why am I right? It’s natural but how can we overcome that knee jerk reaction and actually listen to or consider the feedback? Like you said, you don’t have to necessarily accept it but at least consider it.
Doug Stone: Yeah, exactly. Often when we’re taking in feedback we’re hearing it through the question in our head, the question in our head that’s playing is what’s wrong with this feedback? If that’s the question that you have, there’s always going to be something wrong with it. It’s out of date, it was a month ago that that happened or it was five minutes ago that that happened, it’s not true anymore or you talk to the wrong people or you didn’t put the feedback quite the right way. There’s always something wrong with feedback and so if we sort of throw out feedback just based on spotting something that’s wrong with it we’re always going to end up throwing out all the feedback.
It’s not that we should therefore ask the question, it’s not that we should just say, “Okay if I’m not supposed to ask what’s wrong, I’ll just assume it’s right and take all the feedback because as we said before that’s not going to be useful. It’s fine to ask what’s wrong with it but we also need to pair that with a sister question which is what’s right about this feedback? What could I actually learn? What might be useful about this? It’s sort of like if you went into a clothing store and you tried on a pair of pants and they didn’t fit and you just walked out and said, “Well the clothes in this store don’t fit.” It would be pretty reasonable to say well you tried on one pair and they didn’t fit, they’ve got 100 other pair of pants. It’s the same with feedback where we think if we can find one thing wrong with than that feedback we’re just going to throw it out but better to actually step back and say, “Is there anything here that might be useful to me? That might make sense to me? That might actually help me?
Brett McKay: I think another issue that gets to this truth trigger is that there’s often a miscommunication about what’s going on, what’s actually happening. There’s these blind spots that exist, so people can’t read your brain, they can’t read your mind, so you might have intended something and they give you feedback that says, “No, you were doing this, this is what your intention was,” but that wasn’t your intent, you were actually trying to do this thing that they said that you weren’t trying to do. How do you close that gap between the giver and the receiver about feedback? Or about the truth of feedback?
Doug Stone: Yeah. This whole topic of blind spots is really a thing. I think everyone would agree that human beings have blind spots and what they mean by that is other people have blind spots. It’s very hard for us, even just conceptually to think of ourselves as having blind spots. By blind spots, a couple of examples are, things like our facial expressions.
You think about sitting in a meeting, in a work setting or in a family, sitting around a family dinner table, everybody else in that setting can see your face. The only person that can’t see your face is yourself. They all have this information about you, which is what your face looks like right now, which is information that you literally don’t have and you sort of imagine what you think your face looks like or what you imagine your face is conveying if anything and sometimes the way you imagine is right and sometimes your face is kind of giving off information or communication that is different, either different in the sense that it’s not what you intended or sometimes it’s different in the sense that it’s exactly what you’re actually thinking but didn’t necessarily want to be saying.
I was working with an executive a few years back and she had just gotten a bunch of feedback that said, that her team members were down on her and didn’t think she was doing a good job and found her very difficult to work with. This was particularly disturbing because she had gotten the same feedback three years ago and she was really working on it and she was proud of herself for being easier to work with and then lo and behold three years later, feedback swings around again and she gets the same critique. I said, “Well what do you make of this? What’s causing this? Why do you think people are finding you difficult to work with?” She said, “Well here’s what I think. I don’t think I am difficult to work with. I think it’s political. Everyone likes shooting down their boss, it’s just there’s other stuff going on.” She assured me that she was a friendly, compassionate person.
Then her cell phone rang and she took the call as I was standing there and I could hear her side of the conversation obviously and it was a colleague, a subordinate of hers who had called to ask a question and her response sounded essential like this, she said, “No, I’m in a meeting right now. I told you that’s the kind of thing you should be finding out on your own. I told you not to bother me with these kinds of questions. Thank you,” and she hung up and she said, “See this is the problem. The people I’m working with they have no initiative, they keep bothering me with these questions but as you could hear, I’m very polite, I explain things to people, so I don’t know exactly what’s causing the problem.”
What I could hear and what her colleague could hear, the she apparently wasn’t hearing, was that her tone of voice is filled with contempt for this person and frustration so the person on the other end of the phone isn’t thinking, “Okay, so you’re coaching me on how to do things on my own and you’re saying thank you at the end so this is all good.” The person’s hearing the frustration as the key message or the contempt. “You’re not smart enough. You’re not good enough. You don’t work hard enough.” When they evaluate her, that’s what they’re evaluating and it’s just a blind spot from her point of view. It’s not that she’s a bad person or that she’s pretending, she literally didn’t know that she was giving out those messages.
Brett McKay: That’s a hard problem to solve too because in her mind, she thought that she was genuinely trying to be more easy to get along with, easy to work with, but like that actually wasn’t. How do you solve that problem, when you think, “Oh I am doing this thing,” but you’re actually not doing this thing. How do you overcome that?
Doug Stone: Yeah, exactly. Well so it is hard. I mean just by definition these are blind spots and if you could see them easily they would have a different name. The thing that I’ve seen works best is begin to notice these gaps, where you think you’re doing something well and you’re getting feedback, not just once and not just from one person, but from different sources that say, “No actually you’re not doing this well.” It’s not that, what we tend to do is we explain that gap by some other, we put in some explanation like it’s political or they’re jealous. These are very common examples. People will fill in that gap by saying, “Well they’re jealous of me because I’m successful or I’m good at this,” etc.
The awareness for us has to be built around that starting point of where we think we’re one way and we do hear the feedback that we’re maybe not so easy to work with in this example, but instead of saying, I have to explain it away, just sort of sit with it and say, “You know it’s possible that people are giving me this feedback because they’re jealous,” or, “It’s possible that they’re giving me this feedback because there’s some political thing going on,” but what if it were a different reason? What if the feedback were in some way legitimate and important, how can I make sense of that? Then a place to go is to think about what are some of the common blind spots that we all have and the list isn’t that long.
It stings around body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so forth, and so once you start seeing those gaps and you start running through that you can at least begin to get a sense of it and then once you have a sense that maybe that’s what’s going on you can talk to a friend or colleague and sort of urge them to tell you the truth, not just the friendly thing but just say, “Look I think I’m getting feedback here that might be in a blind spot so I want you to let me know how this looks from your perspective.”
Brett McKay: Okay so you asked them to tell them the hard truth. Let’s switch over to relationship triggers. I think we’ve all experienced this. I mean I remember as a kid, if my parents gave me feedback on something I’d just roll my eyes and just like, “Oh my gosh, you guys don’t know anything,” but then as some coach or teacher or stranger gave me the exact same advice I’m like, “Oh yeah this person knows what they’re talking about. I’m going to follow this advice.” I think we all intuitively understand why relationships can affect how we received feedback. One of the interesting things I thought you hit on, because I’ve seen this in my own life, is this idea of switch track conversations that can happen because of a relationship. What are switch track conversations?
Doug Stone: In the book we give, I think, a great example that’s also a fun example, people at this point probably know the comedian Louie C.K. and he’s a stand up comic and he currently has this show called Louie on cable, but before that show he had a prior show called Lucky Louie and there’s a theme, in that show he’s married to his wife obviously and he’s about to have a romantic weekend with her and he brings her red roses as a gift. The first thing out of her mouth is, “I don’t like red roses remember.” The next thing out of his mouth is, “Whether you like red roses or not, a polite person says thank you for the roses and then you can comment on whether you like them or not.” She says, “Why would I thank you for something that I don’t want?” They sort of go back and forth like this.
When I was watching it was thinking this is, obviously it’s like a marital argument and it feels very real and typical and suddenly it occurred to me that what was going on was this dynamic of what, in the book, we call switch tracking where these two people are almost in two different conversations. Like it sounds like they’re talking about the roses and they’re both talking about the roses so you think while maybe they’re talking about the same thing, but in fact the wife is saying, “You don’t listen to me. I’ve told you before that I don’t like red roses. You don’t listen to me.” The husband is saying, “You don’t appreciate me. I try to do nice things for you and you don’t appreciate me.”
Those are just two different conversations. You can’t have those at the same time in a back and forth. You actually have to separate out those two topics and have each of them separately. They’re not easy conversations to have separately either but there’s at least some chance that the husband, or Louie in this case, could say, “It sounds like you don’t listen to you, tell me more about that. Let’s talk about that.” Then you could swing around and say, “So the other thing that’s going on here is I feel like you don’t appreciate the efforts that I make,” and then they could talk about that and there you at least have a chance to get through both of these conversations in a useful way but once you start noticing that dynamic of switch tracking it’s unbelievable how common it is in our lives where we get or give feedback.
Let’s say we get feedback and instead of responding to the content of the feedback, we respond to how it’s delivered or who’s giving it to us or what time. How could you send that bad news by e-mail? How could you send it Friday at 5:00? Those may be legitimate conversations to have but they’re additional to whatever the actual underline feedback was about.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s mainly like a defense mechanism. I know I do that. My wife will bring something up and I’ll say, “You know you really could of said that differently.” I just completely ignore the feedback and I’m trying to protect my ego by throwing. “Well you’re not so great either because you do this thing.”
Doug Stone: Exactly. I think that’s right. It’s partly a defense mechanism but it’s partly just, it’s a real thing. In other words if you feel like you’re either getting too much criticism or you’re not appreciated for what you do well, when someone criticizes you the thing that’s in your head is, “Well wait a second. What about all the times where I didn’t do that?” You’re trying to defend yourself but you’re trying to defend yourself not to get out of looking at the truth, you’re trying to defend yourself because you feel like this is a legitimate important topic, and it is. The challenge is just that it needs to be a separate conversation.
If you comment on the house is not neat or whatever and the person storms out of the room. What is is that’s triggering them? Let’s talk about that and let’s also talk about what are the rules about how we keep the house clean?
Brett McKay: How does the dynamic of relationship affect whether you get into these switch track conversations? I mean is if there’s a lot of tension you’re more likely to move to these switch track conversations or if there’s less tension you’re less likely to do it?
Doug Stone: Yeah, I think if there’s more tension we’re more likely but I think we all actually fall into them pretty commonly. Just think how common it is to say things like, “I can’t believe they told me that at 5:00 on Friday,” or, “I can’t believe they broke up with me on the telephone.” That kind of thing. We’re just very sensitive and I think rightly so to the way feedback is delivered and the timing of it and does the person appreciate us or not? It comes up constantly and, again, the answer isn’t to pretend that you don’t have your own concerns. For example, with Louie and the flowers, the answers not for him to say, “Okay I’ll start listening to you from now on and now we’re done.” The answer is for him to talk about her topic, which is listening, but then for him separately to talk about his topic, which is appreciation.
Brett McKay: All right, so be aware of it. What can we do to mitigate relationship triggers when we’re giving and receiving feedback? Like I said in that earlier example, your parents or your wife could give you a set of advice. If you just ignore it because they’re your parents and your wife, but if some complete stranger gives you advice, you’re like, “Oh yeah I’m going to listen. That’s actually a good point.” How do you overcome that bias of just totally disregarding advice if it comes from someone close to you, even though it might be useful?
Doug Stone: A few things. I think the first thing is just to be aware of that. To notice when you’re in a pattern where your wife or a relationship or somebody is giving you feedback over and over again and you’ve kind of stopped hearing it because it’s your parent or spouse or whatever and just ask yourself, “Okay, so what’s going on here? I’m not taking this feedback because they’re annoying me or because it’s my parents being critical or whatever,” and if you choose to to try and make that discussable. To say, like in a marriage, to say, “Look, everyday you spend the day criticizing me for not taking out the garbage, the hundred things that I’m doing wrong. Let’s see if we can figure this out so we don’t have to keep having the same conversation.”
Just making it explicit and at the same time, when we’re sort of beaten down by too much feedback from the same person, it’s fine to say, and probably useful to say, “This feedbacks not helpful anymore. There’s nothing new in the feedback for me. I’m trying to change or here’s the limits of what I can do but you just giving me this feedback over and over again isn’t doing anything for me in terms of actually fixing the problem.”
Brett McKay: You argue in the book that the way we received feedback and handle it can often be determined by our wiring and temperament, how so?
Doug Stone: Yeah, so there’s this in psychology some people subscribe to what they call the 50, 40, 10 rule. I don’t know about the exact percentages but the idea of it is that about 50% of how we react in the world to feedback or to bad news or to setbacks is just based on our wiring, our constitution, literally our neurology. 10%, the 50, 40, 10, so 50 is wiring, 10% is based on the actual situation that’s going on around us, so we’re getting the bad news. We didn’t get the pay raise or whatever it was. That leaves this 40%, and the 40% of how we react in any given situation isn’t based on our wiring and it’s not based on the actual situation, that’s when you say, “Well, what’s left? What could it be based on?” What’s it based on is the way we’re interpreting what the news is, the story that we’re telling about it.
If you don’t go a pay raise you might say, “Well there’s no story to tell, I just don’t get a pay raise so what’s the story? How do I tell a different story? I can’t pretend that I’m getting more pay,” but what happens is if we find out what we’re not getting a pay raise, we might start doing these snowballing catastrophic thinking like, “I’m never going to get a pay raise or I’m never going to do a good job or I’m going to get fired soon,” and then it can even work backwards where we start looking to the past and say, “I’ve never done anything right in my life and I can’t do anything right now and I know this is about work but I’m also not a good husband, I’m not a good father,” and before you know it it’s just completely out of control.
The advice is not to pretend that you’re getting an increase in salary or to deny that you didn’t get a pay raise but to simply keep it the size that it is to acknowledge this is what this is, this is what this mean, but also it’s not about have I ever done anything well in my life, it’s not about the future in the sense that this means nothing good is ever going to happen to me again. When we sort of supervise the feedback it gets out of control and that’s where that 40% of how we react can come in is some people will sort of exaggerate things into the future and into the past and other people are very good at keeping it the size that it is. Some people are actually go in the other extreme which is they don’t take in the feedback at all, which is a form of narcissism which is not good either, so you want to be hearing the feedback but keeping it the size it is and keeping it meaning what it actually means and not a whole lot more.
Brett McKay: Right, so this idea of keeping things in proportion. This goes to the identity trigger. Whenever we receive feedback it’s like, “Boy, because I didn’t get a pay raise it means I’m a terrible employee. Because I’m a terrible employee I’m a terrible husband,” yada yada.
Doug Stone: Right. If you actually got genuine feedback that all these terrible things were true, about your past, about your present, about your future, you would be pretty depressed and unhappy and you would spiral out of control but the point is that in most of these kinds of situations you’re getting a very discreet piece of feedback and then we’re telling exaggeratedly negative story about it and that’s just shooting ourselves in the foot.
Brett McKay: You talk about in order to avoid this identity trigger you need to switch from a static mindset to a growth mindset. We’ve had Carol Dweck on the podcast before to talk about this.
Doug Stone: Yeah, oh great, so her work has been really interesting. Yeah, she talks about a fixed mindset and a growth mindset and in the fixed mindset people think of themselves, I have a certain set of skills, like I’m a certain amount of smart, I’m a certain amount of athletic, I have a certain amount of perseverance, and that’s fixed and so the only thing that feedback for me is it tells me what that amount is. If I take a test in school I am finding out am I smart or am I stupid? When you go in and take a test, the Civil War or whatever the topic is, and you think that the feedback you’re getting on the test is you’re smart or you’re stupid and you find out, either way, if you find out you’re smart now you’re thinking, “Okay I’m smart, but that puts pressure on me to keep being smart.” If you find out you’re stupid you feel like, “Well, that’s too bad there’s nothing I can do, I guess I’m one of those people who’s destined not to do well.”
Dweck says, “Why are we hearing it that way? We can just as easily think that these endowments that we have about intelligence or athletic ability or empathy or whatever the skill is, these are things that we can get better at.” It is absolutely true that you can get better at virtually everything in your life. Not to say everyone’s going to be LeBron James in basketball or Yo Yo Ma as a cellist but we can all get better and sometimes we can get a little better, sometimes we can get a lot better. Even people that are really really bad at math can get better at math.
There is no reason to think of that as just this fixed thing and once you start thinking about it that way, then you get your test score back on the Civil War and instead of thinking, “Oh, I got bad great that means I’m stupid.” The information in this conversation is that I’m stupid, the information in this conversation is you don’t know much about the Civil War and the coaching is so study differently, study harder, study more efficiently, play fewer computer games, whatever, those are all things that you have power to influence so you’re not just stuck with a label, you can actually change it, and that gives you a lot of freedom to improve but also clears aways some of the highest stakes that we associate with all these measures along the way of our lives.
Brett McKay: Yeah I think this understanding the fixed and growth mindset and focusing on growth mindset is really useful for that evaluative feedback, or feedback you interpret as evaluative, right? Someone tells you, “Well you’re not that good,” and you can interpret if you have a fixed mindset, “Well I’ll never be good,” but if you have a growth mindset, “Well okay I’m not good now but I can get better.”
Doug Stone: Right. Exactly. That very naturally takes you, you do hear the evaluation, “I’m not that good right now,” and again you’re not pretending that that’s not true. You’re not pretending that you’re a Civil War genius or whatever, but it also then, so you’re hearing the evaluation but then it quickly moves into coaching, which is, “Okay, if this is a thing that I can be better and worse at, and they’re telling me I’m not good at it now,” then the coaching is “I got to start doing things differently,” and that gives you some power over the situation.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about rejecting feedback. As you said, just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t necessarily, you should consider it, but not necessarily take it into account or actually apply what they give you. Sometimes people are wrong, sometimes you’re not even looking for feedback, but rejecting feedback can be a minefield because if it’s your wife and you’re saying, “I’m not really thinking they can get offended,” or your mom like, “Why don’t you listen to me?” How do you reject feedback tactfully?
Doug Stone: Yeah. That’s a great question. As you suggest, the context matters. If it’s your supervisor saying, “You didn’t hit your sales targets for this month,” and you say, “Well you know that’s just not where I’m at right now. I’m not going to be working on that feedback.” That might not go over so well, but there’s lots of times in our lives for any number of reasons, and it can be because you really disagree with the feedback or you think the feedback is good for the person who’s giving it to you but not good for you or it can just be that’s not where you’re at right now, you’re working on five other things, you can’t take on one more thing. There’s lots of good reasons to set feedback aside and I think the mistake that we make sometimes is we don’t discuss that. We sort of hear the feedback and in our minds we’re thinking, “I would never take this feedback,” or, “I can’t possibly think about this right now.”
Then we just kind of leave it and then the other person sees that we’re not doing anything and so they think, “Well maybe they’re not persuaded yet or maybe they didn’t hear it,” and so they say it again and then they say it again, and then they say it again. I think the better course is to actually say, “You know what, here’s what I’m hearing you suggesting to me and here’s what I think of that. Either it does or it doesn’t make sense and here’s why right now, or maybe forever, why I’m not going to pursue that.” The person can agree or disagree. Very often once you explain it they’ll say like, “Okay, I get that.” They can agree or disagree but at least they know that you’ve heard the feedback, you’ve understood it, and it takes away that urge they have to just keep saying it over and over and over again.
Another thing that I think can be useful is just to be very pointed about saying, “Tell me what the purpose from your point of view is of giving me this feedback.” Then the person says, “Well I want you to get better,” and if you can then tie it back and say, “This feedback doesn’t actually help me get better and here’s why.” I had a colleague once who right before I’d go up and give a talk, he would give me a couple little things to remember and he did it over and over again and from his point of view, he was just being as helpful as he possibly can. He’s thinking, “Well these are things Doug’s probably going to forget so just got to make sure he remembers them,” and I started kind of saying, “Don’t give me advice right before I start talking.” He kept doing it and he’s thinking, “But it’s good advice,” which maybe it is.
Then I did this move where I said, “Help me understand what your goal is. When you’re giving this advice, what’s the goal?” He said, “Well I just want to increase the chance that you’re going to do this or remember to say this in your talk.” I said, “Okay, so it doesn’t have that affect. It actually, to some extent, has the opposite effect because what it does is it distracts me, makes me more nervous, and then I do worse.” Once he heard that, he at least understand that conversation from my point of view and can back up and say, “Okay, so what would be a way that would be helpful that I can remind you about this? The answer may be tell me the night before or tell me about it after and then I’ll do it the next time, that sort of thing. I think too often we just aren’t clear about the actual impact on us.
Brett McKay: I think that learning how to, I don’t know, consider and reject feedback is particularly important in the internet. You can post something on Facebook and you’re not looking for feedback, you’re just kind of sharing something or whatever and then like the cousin of your cousin chimes in with their opinion on it. It’s like, “You need to do this,” or I blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s just like oh. For a lot of people that can just weight on them. Receiving constant feedback via likes or comments on Facebook, Instagram, whatever, so how do you manage online feedback?
Doug Stone: Yeah. I think we’re all subject to this, is the negative feedback stings much more than the positive feedback makes us happy. You get 100 comments and 99 of them are positive and one is negative, obviously the one you’re going to remember is the one that’s going to stay with you is the negative one. Just for starters it’s good to be aware of that. It’s a common human reaction, is that, I think that it has to do with our evolution that we’re very sensitive to possible danger in the environment and good things are good and we want to pursue them but danger is sort of urgent and emergency so when we see something that, when we get that negative post we’re sort of wired to really focus on it.
With online stuff, my own reaction, one way that I get online feedback is the comments on Amazon about our book and like most of the comments on Amazon they’re mostly very positive, which is sweet and nice but occasionally someone will have a negative comment and my absolute first reaction is always something critical of that person in a sort of irrational crazy way. Someone will say something like, “This book is too long,” or, “This book is too hard,” or I don’t know what. My reaction is, “That person’s a jerk,” or, “That person doesn’t know how to read a book.” I don’t have any information about this person. It could be Mother Theresa for all I know, but the first reaction I have is going to be negative, dismissive and angry because that’s kind of what’s going on with me physiologically which is fine.
Then I step back and I just try to see the situation more rationally and think is X number of people are reading the book, X number of people are going to comment on the book, when they comment on it some of them are going to have good reasons for not liking the book, some of them are just going to be people that think it’s fun to put up crazy comments. Trying to remind ourselves what’s really going on when people are posting some of those nastier comments. It’s really, especially on the internet I think, it’s rarely about the thing that’s being commented on and it’s mostly about the person doing the commenting and what kind of mood they’re in, what they’re trying to get off their chest, etc. it’s hard, we’re all human beings trying to make it through and when we see those kinds of negative feedback, even if we’re thinking, “That’s some drunk, angry guy at 3:00 a.m. in the morning who just wanted to get some aggression out,” there’s another part of us that’s thinking, “Maybe they’re right, maybe this book sucks or whatever.”
Brett McKay: Yeah I’ve had the drunk angry guy leave e-mails at 3:00 in the morning. Going on this tirade about why I’m wrong and why my site sucks or whatever and I’ll say, “Hey thanks for reaching out, but you could have given that feedback a little more tactfully.” Without fail they always say, “Oh I’m really sorry I had a bad day yesterday. I got a little drunk and I shouldn’t have done that.” It’s really funny how that happens. Well, hey Doug this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your book and your work?
Doug Stone: Book’s available on all the sites, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, etc. My company is called Triad, T-R-I-A-D Consulting Group and the website is just that all in one word, triadconsultinggroup.com and that leads you to anything you could ever possibly need to know.
Brett McKay: Excellent, well Doug Stone, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Doug Stone: It’s my pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Doug Stone, he’s the author of the book, Thanks for the Feedback. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can also check out his site stoneandhean.com for more information about the book. Also check out the show notes at aom.is/feedback for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by creative audio lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs, check them out at creativeaudiolab.com. As always I appreciate the keen support and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 4, 2017