Talking at cross purposes - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
December 1, 2014

Talking at cross purposes

Thanks for the Feedback
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Viking, 348 pages, $32.95
We know feedback is good for us. We know it can help us improve. But receiving feedback can often be difficult. We tense up, even get irked or angry. Only part of the message, or perhaps none of it, slips through, as we slide into defensive mode.

Yes, feedback is a gift. But consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen remark, all too accurately, that instead we treat it like a colonoscopy – an unpleasant burden to endure.

There are many books on giving feedback, and those are helpful in learning how to handle this delicate role with others. But in Thanks for the Feedback, the duo turns the tables, and focus on how we receive feedback – and how to improve.

Receiving feedback, of course, does not mean you have to take it. The advice may be faulty. But it makes sense to skilfully engage in the feedback conversation so you can give due consideration to the ideas expressed by the giver, rather than dismissing them prematurely because you aren’t prepared to listen. “It’s about managing your emotional triggers so that you can take in what the other person is telling you, and being open to seeing yourself in new ways,” they write.

They highlight the importance of separating appreciation, coaching and evaluation, and knowing what is being given or wanted in the conversation. Appreciation is when someone acknowledges your worth. Coaching is direction to help someone learn, grow, or change. Evaluations are like a report card from school, advising whether you have been meeting expectations, and may be accompanied by some consequences.

All three intermingle in feedback conversations. That can spark emotions if the giver and the recipient are not aligned. For example, if the recipient is seeking appreciation or coaching but seems to be receiving evaluation, the conversation may be edgy. Usually evaluation is the least sought, but when somebody hunts for such understanding and instead elicits appreciation or coaching, it can also be frustrating.

We need all three. But there must be alignment in a conversation between what the parties want to give and receive. That misalignment includes when somebody intends to give one type of feedback but it is interpreted incorrectly, a prime example being the giver intending coaching but it is seen, emotionally, as evaluation.

When that happens, the authors label it a cross-transaction. An added complication is that there is always evaluation in coaching, and all too often, evaluation is what is picked up. “I may intend my comment about keeping two hands on the steering wheel as common sense coaching, but you may hear it as evaluation: You’re irresponsible,” they write of helping somebody with driving.

To avoid these pitfalls, two approaches are required. First, you must get aligned. Know the purpose of the conversation and discuss it explicitly. Ask yourself three questions:

• What’s my purpose in giving/receiving this feedback?
• Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
• Is it the right purpose from the other person’s point of view?

“Be explicit about what you think the conversation is about, and be explicit about what would be most helpful to you. Then discuss and, if you need something different, negotiate. Remember: 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,” they write.

Second, you must separate evaluation conversations from coaching and appreciation. As they put it: “The bugle blast of evaluation can drown out the quieter melodies of coaching and appreciation.” That is particularly important for performance reviews, where all three can be intertwined. If someone walks into a performance session determined to learn how to improve, the sharp, piercing edge of evaluation can deeply wound if they seem to fall short of the rating they were expecting. Everything else gets missed.

The evaluation conversation and the coaching conversation therefore should be separated by at least a few days, and preferably longer. “The evaluation conversation needs to take place first. When a professor hands back a graded paper, the student will first turn to the last page to check their grade. Only then can they take in the instructor’s margin notes. We can’t focus on how to improve until we know where we stand,” they advise.

When feedback is given, it’s important to take time to understand. But instead, we usually want to find out what’s wrong with the feedback. It may be wrong because it’s literally wrong, the equivalent of two plus two equals five. But it can also be wrong to our mind because it seems to come from a different planet in approach; it’s right according to the wrong people; the context is ‘wrong’; it’s right for the person offering the feedback but wrong for us; it’s correct but not needed right now; or it’s unhelpful. Wrong spotting, as they call it, is easy “because there’s almost always something wrong – something the feedback giver is overlooking, short-changing, or misunderstanding… But in the end, wrong spotting not only defeats wrong feedback, it defeats learning.”

So understanding is job one. Ask what’s right instead of what’s wrong. That will give you the traction to explore joint solutions, taking advantage of, rather than deflecting, the feedback. If it still seems wrong, you can express that feeling – “This is so far from how I see myself and hope to be seen that I’m speechless” – but perhaps by couching that in terms that continue conversation rather than block it, you can learn more and find something useful to act upon.

It’s vital in feedback conversations to avoid “switchtracking” – having both people in the conversation wanting to discuss different aspects of behaviour, each trying to trump the other. The example they present is of a romantic weekend going off track when the husband proudly offers his wife red roses and she responds, “Try not to take it the wrong way. But if we’re going to be married for the next 30 years, I need you to know that red roses are not my thing.”

It’s not the first time she has mentioned this and he vaguely remembers previous feedback but still wants her to give thanks rather than an admonishment. He now wants the conversation to focus on why she can be given red roses and act so testily while she wants to talk about the fact she gets insulted when she tells him things and he doesn’t listen. Same focus, red roses, but two tracks.

It may be helpful for the future of their relationship that both elements are technically on the table. But they won’t gain from that unless the parties are clear that both of them have to discuss both topics. Otherwise, the conversation will be unproductive, perhaps deeply so. It’s important, therefore, that you spot when your conversational train switches track, and give each their separate time. You need to say: “I see two related but separate topics for us to discuss. They are both important. Let’s discuss each topic fully but separately.”

Switchtracking is more likely to occur when the relationship between the two parties triggers a defensive reaction. The trigger may be what we think about the giver of feedback or how we feel treated by the giver. That results in a four-step process: We get feedback; we experience a relationship trigger; we change the topic to how we feel; and we talk past each other.

The relationship trigger is actually one of three triggers that block feedback. The others are truth (differing views on how accurate the feedback is) and identity (the feedback is threatening). The book is organized around those triggers, and offers lots of helpful advice on becoming more adept in receiving the gift of feedback.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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