Review: Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

thanks for the feedback

This review first ran in the Jan. 19 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Thanks For the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

By Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen



Feedback is a gift.

And so too is a colonoscopy that delivers a clean bill of health or an early diagnosis.

If given the choice, which gift would you prefer?

Apparently, one in four of us dread our annual performance reviews more than anything else we do at work. “Learning about ourselves can be painful – sometimes brutally so – and the feedback is often delivered with a forehead-slapping lack of awareness about what makes people tick,” say Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of Thanks for the Feedback, Harvard Law School lecturers and cofounders of a consulting firm. “It can feel less like a ‘gift of learning’ and more like a colonoscopy.”

Smart employers know this and prep their managers with bootcamps and tipsheets on how to give good feedback. But no amount of training matters if we’re unwilling or unable to receive the honest truth.

“The focus should not be on teaching feedback givers to give,” say Stone and Heen. “The focus – at work and at home – should be on feedback receivers, helping us all to become more skillful learners. The key variable in your growth is not your teacher or your supervisor. It’s you.”

Start by recognizing the inherent tension that comes with receiving feedback. We know it’s good for us, exposes our blindspots and reveals how we’re perceived by the people around us. Feedback is how we improve.

But along with our desire to learn and improve, we also want to be loved, accepted and respected. “Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away. But there’s a lot each of us can do to manage the tension.”

Start by being clear on the feedback you get and want. “Discuss the purpose of the feedback explicitly. It seem obvious, but even competent, well-meaning people can go their whole lives without ever having this part of the conversation.”

According to Stone and Heen, feedback comes in three different flavours – appreciation, coaching and evaluation.

When we want our boss to recognize a job well done, we’re looking for appreciation. We want our blood, sweat and tears to be recognized. We want to know that we matter and make a difference.

When we ask our boss for direction, we want coaching. We want someone to help us learn, grow or change. We want to improve.

When we want to know where we stand and how we rank and rate, that’s evaluation. Are we meeting, exceeding or falling short of expectations? Our annual performance review is an evaluation.

Stone and Heen strongly advise against mixing all three together. “The bugle blast of evaluation can drown out the quieter melodies of coaching and appreciation.”

It also helps to better understand our three emotional triggers that can block and distort feedback.

Truth triggers are set off by feedback that we perceive to be unhelpful, unfair or untrue.

Relationship triggers are tripped by the person giving us the feedback. “Our focus shifts from the feedback itself to the audacity of the person delivering it (are they malicious or just stupid?).”

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. We feel overwhelmed, threatened, ashamed, or off balance.”

Stone and Heen offer strategies to help us better manage our triggers and get better at receiving feedback. One solid piece of advice is to get specific. Don’t tell your manager that you’d like some feedback. Instead, ask what’s the one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way.

“This gives your giver permission to go a little further than usual and it helps them prioritize and cut to the chase.”

Yes, feedback and a colonscopy are gifts. One can save your life. The other can save your career and marriage.  As Stone and Heen point out, we swim in a sea of feedback. Some of it is expertly given from people we respect. And some of it sails in unsolicited from left field.  We can learn from all of it and use it to become even better version of ourselves.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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