By Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Penguin Books, March 31, 2015, 978-0143127130

Thanks for the Feedback is an excellent book about how to receive feedback. I was about to write “assimilate feedback”, but that’s a different concept. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen differentiate listening to feedback from incorporating the advice of the giver. In fact there’s a whole chapter on boundaries around feedback.

The authors build on and reuse text from their book Difficult Conversations. Receiving feedback is really a special form of difficult conversation. The same techniques apply, but you often are thrown into a feedback session whereas you are told in their other book to prepare for difficult conversations.

If you know how to receive feedback, especially criticism, with a positive attitude, you can make the most of it. The concept of “trying it on” to see what the other person means is particularly useful, I think. However, all their techniques are solid and backed by modern research in psychology and neuroscience.

[k141] From Push to Pull

Before you tell me how to do it better, before you lay out your big plans for changing, fixing, and improving me, before you teach me how to pick myself up and dust myself off so that I can be shiny and successful–know this: I’ve heard it before.

I’ve been graded, rated, and ranked. Coached, screened, and scored. I’ve been picked first, picked last, and not picked at all. And that was just kindergarten.

[k220] The real leverage is creating pull.

[k224] We like the word “pull” because it highlights a truth often ignored: that the key variable in your growth is not your teacher or your supervisor. It’s you.

[k228] The majority of our learning is going to have to come from folks like these, so if we’re serious about growth and improvement, we have no choice but to get good at learning from just about anyone.

[k226] The majority of our learning is going to have to come from folks like these, so if we’re serious about growth and improvement, we have no choice but to get good at learning from just about anyone.

[k232] Indeed, research on happiness identifies ongoing learning and growth as a core ingredient of satisfaction in life.

We may be wired to learn, but it turns out that learning about ourselves is a whole different ball game.

[k252] In addition to our desire to learn and improve, we long for something else that is fundamental: to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are.

[k266] Feedback-seeking behavior–as it’s called in the research literature–has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking out negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.

[k315] Understanding our triggers and sorting out what set them off are the keys to managing our reactions and engaging in feedback conversations with skill.

[k320] Truth Triggers are set off by the substance of the feedback itself–it’s somehow off, unhelpful, or simply untrue. In response, we feel indignant, wronged, and exasperated.

[k323] Relationship Triggers are tripped by the particular person who is giving us this gift of feedback.

[k328] Identity triggers are all about us. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity–our sense of who we are–to come undone.

[k353] Broadly, feedback comes in three forms: appreciation (thanks), coaching (here’s a better way to do it), and evaluation (here’s where you stand). Often the receiver wants or hears one kind of feedback, while the giver actually means another.

[k400] The topic of “who” defeats the topic of “what” and the original feedback is blocked. We call this dynamic Switchtracking.

[k544] Evaluations align expectations, clarify consequences, and inform decision making.

[k574] We need evaluation to know where we stand, to set expectations, to feel reassured or secure. We need coaching to accelerate learning, to focus our time and energy where it really matters, and to keep our relationships healthy and functioning. And we need appreciation if all the sweat and tears we put into our jobs and our relationships are going to feel worthwhile.

[k608] Three qualities are required for appreciation to count. First, it has to be specific.

[k616] Second, appreciation has to come in a form the receiver values and hears clearly.

[k621] For some, a monthly paycheck is all the “attaboy” they need. For others, public recognition is meaningful, whether in the form of team e-mail, kudos at a meeting, or organizational awards.

[k624] Third, meaningful appreciation has to be authentic.

[k704] Explicit disagreement is better than implicit misunderstanding. Explicit disagreement leads to clarity, and is the first step in each of you getting your differing needs met.

[k758] Why is wrong spotting so easy? Because there’s almost always something wrong–something the feedback giver is overlooking, shortchanging, or misunderstanding.

[k818] So to clarify the feedback under the label we need to “be specific” about two things:

(1) where the feedback is coming from, and

(2) where the feedback is going.

[k886] In any given case, you might or might not choose to follow someone’s advice. But we can test whether advice is clear by asking this: If you do want to follow the advice, would you know how to do so?

[k933] The feedback giver has ideas in their head and we’ve been talking about how to get those ideas from that person’s head into your head.

[k1007] One of the primary reasons we interpret data differently is that we have different rules in our heads about how things should be. But we don’t think of them as our rules. We think of them as the rules.

[k1021] One principle for how we organize our experiences is this: We are (usually) the sympathetic hero of the story.

[k1035] Difference spotting–understanding as specifically as you can exactly why you and they see things differently–is a crucial lens through which to take in feedback.

[k1053] Your goal is to understand the feedback giver, and for them to understand you. If you end up thinking the feedback is helpful, then you’ll take it. If you don’t, at least you’ll understand where the feedback comes from, what they were suggesting, and why you’re rejecting it.

[k1154] Giving up wrong spotting isn’t easy, and you don’t have to give it up altogether. You can still indulge in recreational wrong spotting on the weekends, with friends over a beer.

[k1187] In fact, there is always a gap between the self we think we present and the way others see us.

[k1225] Who can see your face? Everyone. Who can’t see your face? You.

[k1226] But our own face is a blind spot.

[k1254] Infants sort what they hear through the superior temporal sulcus (STS), located just above the ear.

[k1258] But get this: When we ourselves speak, the STS turns off. We don’t hear our own voice, at least not the same way we hear everyone else.

[k1265] University College London researcher Sophie Scott speculates that our “listening” STS brain doesn’t attend to the sound of our own voice in part because we are so absorbed in listening to our thoughts. Our attention can focus on only one thing at a time, so we focus on our intentions–figuring out how to say what we’re trying to say.

[k1284] Surprisingly, even on e-mail, people try to read emotions and tone.

[k1330] The third amplifier has already been hinted at on the Gap Map: We judge ourselves by our intentions (arrow 2), while others judge us by our impacts (arrow 4).

[k1340] Despite my best intentions, I may have a negative impact on you; you feel bossed around and micromanaged FIXME

[k1344] The “fix” is to separate intentions from impacts when feedback is discussed.

[k1352] All of these amplifiers–our tendency to subtract certain emotions from our self-description, to see missteps as situational rather than personality-driven, and to focus on our good intentions rather than our impact on others–add up. And so we get statistics like this: 37 percent of Americans report being victims of workplace bullies, but fewer than 1 percent report being bullies.


[k1370] You can’t see yourself more clearly just by looking harder.

[k1376] Instead of dismissing the feedback or the person giving it to you, use these thoughts as a blind-spot alert.

[k1387] Our usual response to upsetting feedback is to reach for other feedback that contradicts it, in order to protect ourselves.

[k1390] Instead of whipping out contradictory feedback, take a breath and look for consistent feedback–consistent in two ways.

[k1416] A supportive mirror shows us our best self, well rested and under flattering light. We go to a supportive mirror for reassurance.

[k1418] An honest mirror shows us what we look like right now, when we’re not at our best and our bedhead is bad. It’s a true reflection of what others saw today, when we were stressed and distracted and leaking our frustration.

[k1421] Consciously or unconsciously, we often ask the people closest to us to be supportive mirrors.

[k1433] For many of us, watching ourselves on video or hearing ourselves on audio is unpleasant at best. But it can be enormously illuminating, enabling us to hear our own tone and see our own behavior in ways that are normally invisible to us.

[k1554] But with switchtrack conversations, we don’t realize there are two separate topics, and so both get lost as we each hear the other person through the filter of our own topic.

[k1586] Credibility: They Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

[k1630] Don’t use the relationship trigger of trust to automatically disqualify the feedback.

[k1633] Relationship triggers also explain why sometimes those closest to us can’t give us feedback, no matter how well intentioned or accurate.

[k1659] Want to fast-track your growth? Go directly to the people you have the hardest time with. Ask them what you’re doing that’s exacerbating the situation. They will surely tell you.

[k1680] Autonomy is about control, and in telling us what to do or how to do it, givers can trip this wire in an instant.

[k1695] It’s the paradox at the heart of many feedback conversations: We find it hard to take feedback from someone who doesn’t accept us the way we are now.

[k1703] What to the giver seems like a recommendation for a small behavioral tweak may feel to the receiver like a rejection of Who I Am.

[k1777] So when you receive coaching, a question to ask yourself is this: Is this about helping me grow and improve, or is this the giver’s way of raising an important relationship issue that has been upsetting them?

[k1806] Understanding her concerns will also help ease your own relationship triggers–this is less about accepting who you are, and more about her worries about who she is, and her worries for you.

[k2253] Happiness is believed to be one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality. Twin studies have led to estimates that about 50 percent of the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.

[k2258] First, people who have higher happiness baselines are more likely to respond positively to positive feedback than people with lower self-reported well-being.

[k2298] Researcher Richard Davidson has found that the amount of time that we sustain positive emotion, or need to recover from negative emotion, can differ by as much as 3,000 percent across individuals.

[k2310] Researchers have termed this the “valence hypothesis,” suggesting that people who have more activity on the right side (“cortical righties”) tend to be more depressed and more anxious; cortical lefties tend to be happier.

[k2659] You might still find the current feedback challenging or the news regrettable, but in your final days, you’re much more likely to regret the time you spent fretting

[k2661] It’s been said that comedy is tragedy plus time.

[k2664] The ability to laugh at yourself is also an indicator that you are ready and able to take feedback. Laughing at yourself requires you to loosen your grip on your identity.

[k2674] How others see us and how we see ourselves are inevitably intertwined. We need others–their perspective on us–in order to see ourselves clearly. Their view may be only one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important piece.

[k2744] Learning profitably from feedback is not only about how we interpret the feedback; it’s also about how we hold our identity.

[k2774] While some of us do it naturally, we can all learn to hold our identity in ways that make us more resilient.

[k2776] Two shifts are crucial. We need to:

(1) Give up simple identity labels and cultivate complexity; and

(2) Move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

[k2795] All-or-nothing identities present us with this choice: Either we can exaggerate the feedback, or we can deny it.

[k2811] Here’s the bottom line: As long as you tell your self-story in these black-and-white terms, you will find no peace. You can’t choose between whether you’re a good person or a bad person. Whichever you select, there is evidence for the opposite conclusion.

[k2827] You always saw yourself as someone who would do anything for those you love. But now you recognize it’s not that simple.

With this acceptance comes sadness, but also a kind of balance.

[k2850] It’s easy to do relationship math such that we are the wronged party in the equation.

[k2899] But the bottom line is this: People do get better when they apply themselves, and people apply themselves when they believe they can get better. This is true whether we are excruciatingly bad at something or preternaturally good.

And effort matters most with the qualities in life that matter most–things like intelligence, leadership, performance, confidence, compassion, creativity, self-awareness, and collaboration. These all grow with attention and improve with coaching.

[k2906] Dweck reports that those with growth mindsets are “amazingly accurate” in gauging their current abilities, while people with fixed mindsets are “terrible” at estimating their own proficiencies.

[k2975] We snatch defensiveness from the jaws of learning.

[k3012] As we figure out how to hear evaluation, it’s helpful to break evaluation itself down into three constituent parts: assessment, consequences, and judgment.

Assessment ranks you.

[k3015] Consequences are about the real-world outcomes that result from the assessment: Based on the assessment, what, if anything, is going to happen?

[k3018] Judgment is the story givers and receivers tell about the assessment and its consequences.

[k3031] After every low score you receive, after each failure and faltering step, give yourself a “second score” based on how you handle the first score.

[k3033] Even when you get an F for the situation itself, you can still earn an A+ for how you deal with it.

[k3079] In fact, being able to establish limits on the feedback you get is crucial to your well-being and the health of your relationships.




[k3128] Unhelpful feedback is useless; relentless unhelpful feedback is destructive.

[k3141] People sometimes seek attention by holding the relationship hostage because they don’t have the skills to express their feelings of insecurity, anxiety, or hurt in any other way. You can be compassionate about the giver’s needs without becoming their hostage.

[k3181] Psychologists tell us that the most addictive reward pattern is called “intermittent reinforcement.”

[k3377] Broadly, feedback conversations are made up of three parts:

Open: A critical piece, oddly often skipped when we jump right in without getting aligned: What is the purpose of the conversation?

[k3380] Body: A two-way exchange of information, requiring you to master four main skills: listening, asserting, managing the conversation process, and problem solving.

Close: Here we clarify commitments, action steps, benchmarks, procedural contracts, and follow-up.

[k3425] A key factor in happy marriages, Gottman says, is a couple’s ability to change course, to make and respond to “repair attempts” that break the cycle of escalation between them.

[k3531] If understanding is purpose one, letting the giver know you understand (or, just as important, that you want to understand) is purpose two. Listening rewards the giver’s effort in taking the time to give you feedback, and it leaves them feeling reassured that they have been clear.

[k3548] If you’re overwhelmed, don’t try to fight through it and inquire. Instead, assert. Replace hot inquiry like this: “Do you actually think that what you’re saying is consistent or fair?” with a thoughtful assertion like this: “What you’re suggesting seems inconsistent with the criteria you’ve used for others in my position. That doesn’t seem fair to me.” You can then circle back to listening: “Are there aspects of this that I’m missing?”

[k3602] Supercommunicators had an exceptional ability to observe the discussion, diagnose where it was going wrong, and make explicit process interventions to correct it.

[k3680] To solve the real problem, you have to understand the real interests. And to understand the real interests, you have to dig behind the stated positions and identify which bucket the interests fall into.

[k3693] Closing with commitment can be as short as a sentence: “I want to think about what you’ve said, and let’s talk tomorrow.”

[k3851] But here’s the challenge: In any contest between change and the status quo, the status quo has home field advantage.

[k4441] Rote thank-yous lose currency fast, but an authentic “Hey, watching you handle that complicated task so well is making me rethink my approach to those problems” can mean more than any plaque or gift certificate.

[k4445] The point here is not that you have to have an “appreciation system” in place; rather, it’s about having a cultural norm of appreciation that encourages everyone to notice (1) the genuine and unique positives in the work of others, and (2) how each team member hears appreciation and encouragement so that it can be best expressed to that person as an individual.

[k4470] Part of what defines an organizational culture are the stories and myths about it–the courage or genius or endurance displayed in the face of impossible challenges. These stories tell us what kind of place we work at and what is expected of us.

[k4556] Our sensitivity to feedback can affect not only how we receive feedback but also how we give it. If a manager is highly sensitive to negative feedback, he may not be comfortable giving negative feedback to others; he may assume they’ll have the same painful overreactions that he does.

[k4569] People who worry a lot often give an abundance of feedback as a way to gain a sense of control over their environment. People who have impossibly high standards for themselves can also hold impossibly high standards for others, resulting in a steady stream of coaching and negative evaluation, and a conspicuous silence around appreciation.

[k4573] This is why when you are a giver, asking your receiver to coach you as their coach is so important.