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The Unpracticed Art of Receiving Feedback

When I first stepped into the role of team lead at Automattic, I knew one of my biggest areas for growth revolved around feedback. Sure, I’d led a team in the past, but this felt like an entirely new ballgame.

I dove in headfirst into reading all about feedback. I scheduled feedback sessions with everyone on my team and encouraged them to give me feedback as well with leadback surveys. Overall, I thought I had a handle on the feedback thing.

About a year ago, I stumbled across the book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Not only did the book have an amazing tagline1; when I put it down, I realized I had earmarked nearly every other page. It changed how I viewed feedback in general.

Giving feedback was only half of the equation; receiving feedback was the other (arguably, more important) half. I realized that focusing on the latter could help with the former.

In January of 2017, I gave a workshop to my colleagues at Automattic all about receiving feedback covering many of the concepts from the book and examples of how I was putting them to use. A few people told me the workshop was helpful so I thought I’d share it here.

Why Giving and Receiving Feedback is Prickly

I think we can all agree that feedback is generally uncomfortable.

As the feedback giver, you get better with practice, but I don’t know anyone that charges into critical feedback sessions with enthusiasm feeling 100% confident with what they’re about to say. As the feedback receiver, the phrase “I’d like to give you some feedback” doesn’t exactly leave you feeling comfortable.

Why exactly is receiving feedback so difficult? The authors point to three particular “triggers.” In this context, you can think of a trigger as anything that makes feedback feel uncomfortable and leads to less than desirable outcomes.

Truth Triggers

I’ll quote directly from the book here (p. 19 if you’re following along):

Truth triggers are set off by the substance of the feedback itself—it’s somehow off, unhelpful or simply not true.

Pretty simple. You give me feedback; I think you’re completely wrong. It’s easy to see how this trigger could pop up in normal conversation.

You think I didn’t ship this project fast enough. I think I completed it in record speed.

You think I said X, but I’m pretty positive I said Y.

I’m relaxing after my latest presentation thinking I crushed it, but you’re not so sure that’s the case.

You know a truth trigger is coming on when hear phrases in your head like “That’s wrong,” “That’s not helpful,” or “That’s not me.” As a result, you immediately get combative. It’s me versus you; only one person can make it out alive. Instead of going into combat mode, we can try two tactics.

Understand where they’re coming from

It’s important to take a step back and look at the inputs that feed into the feedback on the table. Otherwise, flying blind. The authors recommend asking more questions and changing your perspective.

By asking for specifics, you can get to the root behaviors and observations leading to their judgement. If someone says “You didn’t ship this project fast enough,” you might respond with “That’s interesting, and I’d love to hear more about your perspective. Were there specific deadlines I missed? Or, did I hold up some other part of the organization?” After all, “fast enough” isn’t exactly fact-based. Your goal is to get down to the nitty-gritty. What boxes didn’t I check? Whereexactly did I fall short?

Changing the perspective has proven valuable. In the general combative nature of truth triggers, we’re all about “wrong spotting.” You’re wrong, that’s incorrect, etc. On the flip side of wrong spotting isdifference spotting. Instead of saying “You’re wrong,” you would say “That’s interesting. I would like to understand more about why we see this differently.”

Recognize that you have blind spots

It’s tempting to see ourselves as all-knowing intelligent beings that always act and behave exactly as we’d like. When thinking about our actions, there are five different pieces to consider. Some of which I as the doer am aware of. Others, you as the receiver have a better perspective on.I’m aware of…

  1. My thoughts and feelings.
  2. My intentions.

You’re aware of…

  1. My behavior.
  2. My impact on you.
  3. The story you tell about me as a result.

Our mistake is in assuming that we see the full picture when in reality, we see less than half.

I’ll offer a very practical example of how this manifested in my daily work. Automattic sends out engagement surveys to all employees twice a year. The leads of various departments dive into results for their particular areas to solve the issues team members raise.

Several engagement surveys in a row indicated that Happiness Engineers were looking for more career opportunities. After the first engagement survey, we made some changes. Then, after the second engagement survey said the same thing, we made more changes. After the third survey, I admittedly started to get frustrated. Did my teammates not see the work we were putting in?

I fell into a common trap:

…we assume that since our intention is to fix a problem, the behavior will follow as a result. Sometimes the output (what they see) doesn’t match.

Instead of getting frustrated, I should have (and did) try to understand where my teammates were coming from like this:

“We’ve worked on career related items in the past like X, Y, and Z. Based on the recent engagement survey, that hasn’t addressed the issue. I’d like to learn more about what exactly you mean by career opportunities and why these initiatives missed the mark.”

Relationship Triggers

Truth triggers are all about the substance of the feedback. As one might assume, relationship triggers are all about the relationship between the giver and receiver. Obvious right? If I’m giving you feedback and you think I’m untrustworthy or a general ass, you’re not likely to respond well. To quote the book (p 16):

We’re tripped up by “what we believe about the giver (they’ve got no credibility on this topic!) or how we feel treated by the giver (after all I’ve done for you, I get this kind of petty criticism?)

“You don’t know what you’re talking about so I have no idea why you’re giving me this critique.”

“Remember when I did that favor for you? This is what I get in return?”

“After all we’ve been through,this is how you treat me?”

You get the point. Like truth triggers above, there are specific strategies for dealing with relationship triggers.

Don’t switchtrack

I hadn’t heard of this term before reading it in the book, but it seems so obvious now. This involves identifying when two separate conversations exist. Let’s take a completely hypothetical (honestly) example.

Say you come home after a long day of work, and you’re absolutely exhausted. You completely forget that your wife asked you to unload the dishwasher and get dinner started. When she arrives home from work, she’s not exactly pleased to find you watching television.

“I can’t believe you forgot to unload the dishwasher, and you’ve yet to start dinner! You’re such a lazy slob lately. I feel like I have to do everything around here myself.”

Notice the two distinct topics? First, you definitely dropped the ball on the dishwasher and dinner. Second, your wife feels like you’re not pulling your weight around the house.

Normally, we might try to tackle both of these issues in one fell swoop. In doing so, we’re destined to fail. Instead, we should separate out the issues and discuss them individually.

“I’m terribly sorry that I forgot to empty the dishwasher and start dinner. That’s a clear failure on my part. I’ll get started on that now. I understand you’re feeling like I’m not pulling my weight with the chores around the house, and I want to discuss that as well. First though, is there anything else I can help with now besides dinner?”

The authors refer to this as signposting. You’re identifying the two or more topics you want to discuss and giving each topic its own time for discussion. Here’s a solid example from the book (p. 117) that I’ve modified a few times in conversation:

I see two related but separate topics for us to discuss. They are both important. Let’s discuss each topic fully but separately, giving each topic its own track.

Identify the relationship

This involves taking a few steps back and looking at the relationship from different viewpoints. For example, let’s say you’re giving feedback to a coworker. She was late shipping a project, and as a result, you had to stay late on a Friday night to finish your work. You’re peers meaning no one is really higher or lower on the org chart. Here are four questions to consider.One step back:“In what ways does the feedback reflect differences in preferences, assumptions, styles, or implicit rules between us?”

Maybe your coworker wasn’t aware of the deadline or it wasn’t communicated to her correctly.Two steps back:“Do our roles make it more or less likely that we might bump into each other?”

How do your two roles interact? Are you constantly relying on her to finish a project before you can start your work? If so, there will be some natural tension.Three steps back:“What other players influence our behavior and choices? Are physical setups, processes, or structure also contributing to the problem?”

Is there an efficient communication mechanism within your company that could have alerted you to this timing issue sooner?Circling back to me:“What am I doing (or failing to do) that is contributing to the dynamic between us?”

You could have approached her on Thursday and asked how the project was going or offered to help when you realized it was going to come in late.

Identity Triggers

We’ve talked about truth triggers and relationship triggers. Identity triggers are all aboutyou (the receiver).

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.

Usually, we have a positive self-narrative. When we receive feedback that flies in the face of this narrative, it can hurt. Identity triggers sting because they contradict our internal narrative.

Two strategies can help.

Learn your wiring and temperament

This is a helpful self-reflection exercise that I recommend to everyone.

The goal is to identify where you sit emotionally on a daily basis identifying three points in particular.

  1. Baseline—Where do you sit emotionally on an average day? Are you bubbly, happy individual? Or, are you a bit more “glass half empty?” Somewhere in the middle? For me, I definitely sit above average (not quite bubbly but pretty positive).
  2. Swing—This essentially determines your range. After receiving the most positive praise, how high up do you go? On the flip side, after receiving critical feedback, how far low do you swing? For me, positive praise doesn’t swing me very high up. On the flip side, critical feedback tends to swing me down pretty far. I have a larger response to critical comments.
  3. Recovery—After a “swing,” how long does it take you to come back to your baseline? Again, for me, it takes me longer to recover from critical feedback.

This gives me a basic understanding of how I’m going to react to both positive and critical feedback. It may not necessarily change how bad the feedback stings, but I’m ready ahead of time for the reaction.

“Jeremey, remember how you respond to critical feedback. This is going to sting a bit, and it’s going to put you in a funk for an hour or two. Go for a walk and take a break. Then, you’ll be in a better place to act on the feedback.”Dismantle distortionsWe often use simple labels to describe ourselves and our character. For example, I use words like honest, hardworking, disciplined, positive, kind, etc.

When we’re faced with reinforcing feedback, those labels work well. Think about the last time you received positive praise. There was a small part of you that thought “Yeah…that’s right…I AMhonest/hardworking/smart/attractive.”

The issue comes when we’re faced with feedback that conflicts with those labels. To quote the book one last time:

Simple labels work “fine when we’re ‘all.’ But when we get feedback that we are not all, we hear it as feedback that we are nothing.”

I think of myself as honest, but the second someone I respect calls me a liar, my positive self-image is immediately busted. Instead of being 95% honest with one or two mistakes, I’m a big failure.

I’ve experienced this many times. Two pieces become important to consider:

  • Separate the strands. What is this feedback about? Whatisn’t it about?
  • Contain the story. Does everyone feel this way? Is this happening every single time? More often than not, the answer is no.

Asking yourself those questions can help to disarm this huge, character-destroying piece of feedback and help you recognize it for what it is – feedback about a specific action/instance.

***

Receiving feedback wasn’t something I originally thought of when I started learning about feedback in general. I thought it was all about how you gave feedback to others. Who cares how you reacted when someone else gaveyou feedback. That was their problem.

I can’t recommend Thanks for the Feedback enough. It has been insanely helpful in how I give and react to feedback both at work and in my personal life.

  1. “even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood”

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