What I’m Reading – Thanks for the Feedback

Legal academics and practitioners are professional feedback givers and receivers.  Of course, faculty constantly give feedback to students – and also to colleagues.  Faculty are frequently evaluated for hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions as well as about their publications and presentations, funding requests, and lots of other things.

Practitioners regularly provide clients with feedback, often the unwelcome “bad news” variety.  Clients and other practitioners dish it out as well.

When done well, feedback is an invaluable gift.  When not done well, it can feel worse than a root canal.  Though getting feedback often is no fun, giving it generally is no picnic either.  For example, faculty often anguish about how best to tell students that they just aren’t “getting it.”

Most people would benefit from improving skills in both giving and receiving feedback.  Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well … even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood argues that people should improve their skills in receiving feedback because these skills are essential to learn and grow.  Although the book doesn’t focus primarily on skills in giving feedback, its insights can help readers to improve the feedback that they give.

Thanks for the Feedback was written by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, co-authors of Difficult Conversations, in the same style as other Harvard DR books.  It presents key concepts clearly, includes lots of hypothetical situations for illustration, provides summaries at the end of chapters, and outlines the book at the end.   Here’s the description from the website:

The performance evaluation at work; the parenting advice from your mother-in-law; the lecture by the cop who just pulled you over; those suddenly too-tight jeans.

We get feedback every day of our lives, from friends and family, colleagues, customers, and bosses, teachers, doctors, and strangers.  We’re assessed, coached, and criticized about our performance, personalities, and appearance.

We know that feedback is essential for professional development and healthy relationships – but we dread it and often dismiss it.  That’s because receiving feedback sits at the junction of two conflicting human desires.  We want to learn and grow, but we also want to be accepted and respected just as we are now.  Thanks for the Feedback is the first book to address this tension head on.  It explains why getting feedback is so crucial yet so challenging and offers a simple framework and powerful tools to help us take on life’s blizzard of offhand comments, annual evaluations, and unsolicited advice with curiosity and grace.

People giving feedback may intend to provide appreciation, coaching, and/or evaluation.  The book advises people to distinguish between these functions.  Although feedback may combine more than one of them, especially coaching and evaluation, the purposes and consequences of these types of feedback differ significantly.

The book identifies three types of “triggers” causing defensive reactions to getting feedback.  These include reactions about the truth, relationship with the feedback-giver, and implications about the identity of the recipient.  The book is full of detailed, wise advice in dealing with all three triggers, both in personal conversations and organizational settings.

I generally am skeptical about self-help books for general audiences.  Although the advice from such books sometimes makes sense, sometimes it seems obvious, unrealistic, and/or Pollyannaish.

I overcame my skepticism in the case of Thanks for the Feedback, which is one of the best of the genre I have read.

Faculty should consider incorporating insights and techniques from the book in their courses because students inevitably deal with a lot of feedback in school and after graduation.

Click here to see what else I have been reading (not limited to textual material).

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