Full text of author and educator Sheila Heen’s talk titled “How to use others’ feedback to learn and grow” at TEDxAmoskeagMillyardWomen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Sheila Heen – Author, Educator & Public Speaker
Fifteen years ago, my colleagues at the Harvard Negotiation Project and I wrote a book called Difficult Conversations. And I spent the last couple of decades traveling around the world helping people and organizations with some of their most challenging conversations.
Now the first thing that we do when we work with any group is that we say: well, what are your toughest conversations? What would you like some help with?
And together we make a list that we can draw from throughout the day.
Now over the years we started to notice a pattern, which is that feedback showed up on that list a lot. To put a finer point on it, feedback was on that list 100% of the time. It didn’t matter what continent we’re on. It didn’t matter what industry we’re in. It didn’t even matter why they brought us in.
People and organizations all over the world struggle with feedback. Now for the first 10 years, we did what I think everybody does, which is that we taught givers how to give: more skillfully, more clearly, more often.
How many of you have ever been to a session on how to give feedback? Did it help? Okay, please say yes, because I do some of that work.
But your reaction echoes my own experience which was: it helps; I mean there’s a lot you can learn but it wasn’t solving the problem.
And then one day it occurred to us, you know what, in any exchange of feedback between giver and receiver, it’s the receiver who’s in charge. I mean, it’s the receiver who decides what they’re going to let in, what sense they’re going to make of it, and whether and how they choose to change.
I mean, maybe we’ve been going about this totally backwards. Maybe the key is learning how to take in the blizzard of feedback that we come in contact with every day.
Because, by the way, I’m not just talking about performance reviews and other kinds of judgment and evaluation, grades, finding out how you measure up or stack up, you know your marriage proposal accepted, rejected. I mean, those kind of judgments are the most emotional kind of feedback.
But I’m also just talking about everybody’s suggestions for you, the little helpful parenting tips from your in-laws, right. And I’m also talking about the look in my third grader’s eyes when she spots me in the audience, and those little nitpicky criticisms from my husband, which I think of it less as feedback and more as just John being annoying, right?
I mean, feedback is really our relationship with the world and it’s the world’s relationship with us. I mean, what if we could actually see receiving feedback as a skill and we could get better at learning from feedback, taking charge of it, and driving our own learning, so we don’t have to wait around for good givers to show up?
Because I don’t know about you, I have some good givers, wonderful mentors, but mostly my life is populated by everybody else, right? People who are terrible at doing it, don’t have time for it, who are difficult themselves.
What if we could draw learning out of even off-base unfair poorly delivered feedback? What would happen?
Now what’s interesting is that we looked around, said, OK, what’s out there about why it’s so hard to receive feedback and what to do about it? And really there wasn’t much.
But what there was, was some research suggesting that if we could get better at this, it would make a huge difference. There were big rewards.
What the research shows is that people who go out and solicit negative feedback… and by that, what they mean is they’re not just fishing for compliments; they’re looking for what they can improve. Those people report higher work satisfaction. They adapt more quickly in new roles, and they get higher performance reviews.
We suggest that if you get better at handling everybody’s feedback for you, it doesn’t just change you. It changes how other people see you and experience you.
Now let me ask you this: I invite you to think about a piece of coaching or suggestion or advice that you’ve received in your life that you’ve rejected, you didn’t take it. I want to ask you: why didn’t you take it? Just think about that for a moment.
I mean, maybe it was just wrong; it was bad advice. Maybe you didn’t trust the person giving it to you. Maybe you were actually unaware you cared about their opinion which was unsolicited.
Maybe it was confusing or you weren’t even sure how and whether you could change in that way. Maybe it was just too upsetting.
Let me say right now: there are 100 people in this room. There are probably a hundred reasons you didn’t take the feedback. And you know what, those are fantastic reasons to turn away feedback; maybe.
I want to say right now that getting better at receiving feedback does not obligate you to take the feedback. In fact, there are reasons why often we need boundaries, because other people’s views of us can undermine our sense of self sometimes.
But the problem actually is that we usually decide too soon. As human beings, we are incredibly good at something that we call wrong spot. When feedback is incoming, I’m scanning it, because I need to figure out what’s wrong with it: who gave it to me? What they’re suggesting; why they’re probably giving it to me; where they gave it to me… really at my grandmother’s funeral, seriously.
Because if I can find something wrong with it, wow, I can set it aside, relax, and go on with my life. If it’s right, I have to keep worrying about it.
So we’re incredibly incented to decide right away whether the feedback is right or wrong.
Now the fact that you have a triggered reaction isn’t the end of the story; it’s actually the beginning. Because here’s the problem: you are always going to be able to find something wrong with your feedback. I promise. 90% of it might be wrong, but that last 10% might be just what you need to grow.
As we looked at the hundreds and, in fact, thousands of reasons and reactions that we had to feedback, we found that actually they boiled down really to three.