Review of Stone and Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback

Doug Stone and Sheila Heen co-wrote what is now a business classic, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (2010). Their new book explores the challenges of one of the most difficult kinds of conversation — feedback. The title and subtitle of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (2014) signal their thesis: in these conversations, “the key player is not the giver, but the receiver.” 

Lawyers may benefit particularly from this book’s wisdom, given situations in law practice involving the lack of feedback, poorly delivered feedback, and the dire consequences of certain feedback. One difficulty was summed up by Dennis Kennedy’s advice for new lawyers in the ABA’s Law Practice Today:

Many attorneys will say nothing about your work and continue to give you more and more work. To you, this can be frustrating. In their minds, they have given you the highest form of feedback. “If I didn’t like the work, I wouldn’t give them more.” They don’t realize that most of us need to hear the words.

And likewise, Kennedy points out, some generic feedback may hide quite negative thoughts:

A hearty “great job” and no specific comments may disguise the fact someone can’t believe what a poor job you did and just wants to get you moved on to someone else.

So, for the feedback receiver, the first key to getting more out of feedback is recognizing it is everywhere; Stone and Heen define it to include “any information you get about yourself.” And since feedback is everywhere, we can guarantee that not every source of feedback will be skilled or thoughtful. People who want to be more effective can do so by focusing on the part of the feedback transaction they can control: how they receive it and what they do with it. I love this point for lawyers.

Several frameworks can help feedback receivers to do more with what they are receiving. The first is to understand the types of feedback:

  • appreciation: knowing that others are noticing what you’re doing, and grateful for it
  • coaching: understanding direction to grow and change in an area of skill or in a relationship
  • evaluation: being rated or ranked, perhaps comparatively, and learning about future decisions based on rank

Some of the problems with feedback arise when the receiver just wants appreciation but receives detailed coaching, or wants a clear evaluation but receives vague appreciation (and so on). That’s what Dennis Kennedy was talking about with the “hearty great job” that disguises real dissatisfaction. I have also seen a confusion with coaching and evaluation, when an attorney receives a draft motion and marks it up extensively. For some attorneys, they aren’t criticizing the drafter but just using the first draft as a tool to recognize what they really want to do. This is coaching. But for other attorneys, having to mark up anything carries with an implicit judgment/evaluation of the drafter’s skills. Understanding the differences in types of feedback and clarifying expectations in a feedback situation can make conversations more productive.

The second important framework Stone and Heen outline is three categories of “triggers” — as in emotional triggers — that block feedback:

  • Truth triggers arise when the feedback receiver thinks “that’s wrong”; “that’s not helpful”; or “that’s not me.”
  • Relationship triggers arise when the feedback receiver feels unappreciated, does not respect the feedback giver, or blames the giver.
  • Identity triggers arise when the feedback receiver takes the feedback personally, feels helpless, and starts to question everything.

And with these frameworks in mind, Stone and Heen then suggest various process-based approaches for effectively receiving feedback. There is really too much good material to describe here even at a very high level.

One point important point is the “mindset” work led by Carol Dweck at Stanford. If you believe people’s skills are fundamentally fixed and feedback merely reveals what their skills are, then you have a fixed mindset. If you believe people can develop their skills over time and feedback can help with that, you have a growth mindset. This is an incredibly important distinction for professional growth, such that the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession has an entire “GRIT Project” devoted to this concept. Professor William Henderson also wrote a great article about whether great lawyers are born or made. (For in-depth articles focusing on legal education, see articles by Sarah Adams-Schoen and Carrie Sperling. These are just two examples of a lot of great work in this area.)

At times Stone and Heen’s book focuses on listening specifically:

Advice about listening is white noise. It’s so common and so boring that we no longer even hearing. But if you’re drifting off, this would be a good time to wake up. Listening may be the most challenging skill involved in receiving feedback, but it also has the biggest payoff.

Part of the challenge with listening is the competing “inner voice” that drowns out external information. Stone and Heen advise listening for specific information and cultivating a sense of curiosity that can help to tamp down some of the inner voice’s resistance.

Another challenge with listening is the difficulty of doing it really well. Stone and Heen point out that great listeners are able to recognize not just what is being said substantively but also what is happening with the process of the conversation. Here’s one of their examples of managing process within a team:

Okay, we’re deadlocked. We both need to agree on this, and we don’t. Your solution is that I should give in. As a process, that doesn’t feel fair to me. On the other hand, I don’t know how to break this deadlock, so we’ve got to figure it out. What’s a fair and efficient way to decide when we don’t agree?

There is a whole lot more really valuable information in Thanks for the Feedback. Much of it is general information useful for any professional or personal setting. But among their many gigs, Stone and Heen teach negotiations at Harvard Law School; thus, they include several good law-related examples in the book. For anyone who gives or gets feedback, I really recommend this book.

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