Before you tell me how to do it better, before you lay out your big plans for changing, fixing, and improving me, before you teach me how to pick myself up and dust myself off so that I can be shiny and successful—know this: I’ve heard it before.

I’ve been graded, rated, and ranked. Coached, screened, and scored. I’ve been picked first, picked last, and not picked at all. And that was just kindergarten.

(Thanks for the Feedback: The Art and Science of Receiving Feedback Well, Stone and Heen)


How often do you get good feedback? When’s the last time you blatantly disregarded someone’s advice or suggestions? The truth is, we’ve been getting feedback our whole lives and while some of it’s on the mark, a lot of it’s not. So how do we continue to grow and learn despite this? Each year the business world spends billions of dollars and millions of hours to teach people how to give feedback more effectively. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen say that we’ve got it backwards. In their latest book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, they show why the smart money is on educating receivers—in the workplace and in personal relationships tool.

Push and pull

When researching their first book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Stone and Heen began each interview with the question “What are some of your most difficult conversations?” 100 percent of the time, feedback was on that list. Feedback sits at the junction of two core human needs: the desire to learn and grow and the need to be accepted, respected, and loved. This inherent tension is what makes receiving feedback so difficult and why feedback from those closest to us is sometimes the most threatening.

“The focus should not be on teaching feedback givers to give. The focus should be on feedback receivers, helping us to become more skillful learners”

In the workplace, managers are trained to deliver good feedback. Stone and Heen call this the “push” model: “Pushing harder rarely opens the door to genuine learning. The focus should not be on teaching feedback givers to give. The focus—at work and at home—should be on feedback receivers, helping us to become more skillful learners. The real leverage is in creating pull.” No matter how effective the manager is at delivering feedback, if the receiver is impervious to it, the point is moot.

Create your own mentors

People refuse the feedback they are given for many reasons. During their talk, Stone and Heen asked attendees to recount a situation when they chose not to take someone’s feedback and polled them on the reasons why. In the end, a roomful of reasons was reduced to resulting from three basic triggers: truth, relationship, and identity. They’re called triggers because of the emotional response that feedback elicits: “in the grip of a triggered reaction we feel lousy, the world looks darker, and our usual communication skills slip just out of reach. We can’t think, we can’t learn, and so we defend, attack, or withdraw in defeat.”

Truth triggers come from our belief that the feedback is wrong, unfair, or unhelpful. On the other hand, relationship triggers center upon the feedback giver in particular, including “their (lack of) credibility, (un)trustworthiness, or (questionable) motives.” Where we stand in relationship to the feedback giver can cloud the content of the feedback. Finally, identity triggers are those that call into question our very make-up or those things that we think define ourselves. It’s like what someone’s saying is that they just don’t like you.

The idea behind Stone and Heen’s “pull versus push” approach is that mentors are rare, and you can’t wait for that perfect person to coach you through your professional or personal development. No, most of the time we deal with people we don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t respect, but that can’t stop us from learning and growing. While this may seem like a hard pill to swallow, it’s not impossible, and it’s not so far-fetched.

Self-improvement for realists

“If 90 percent of the feedback is off target, that last golden 10 percent might be just the insight you need to grow”

Far from being a “self-help” kind of read, Stone and Heen’s research and consequent findings are down-to-earth and applicable. They’re not claiming that when you receive negative feedback, your judgment is forever biased because of hot-headedness or pride and that you absolutely must change your ways. Rather, they’re saying, “if you decide that 90 percent of the feedback is off target, that last golden 10 percent might be just the insight you need to grow.” So it’s more about being receptive and sifting through the deluge of mediocre feedback to glean those few seeds of insight that contain the power of your potential growth.  And if there’s one thing you can do to help yourself, “Never ask, ‘hey, do you have some feedback?’ No one has an answer for that. Ask one thing,” concluded Heen.

This post is part of our ongoing coverage of Microsoft Research and its Visiting Speaker Series. Microsoft Research supports its mission to educate and foster innovation and growth through inviting authors and speakers that inspire big ideas, spark new ways of doing things, or help people see things from a new perspective.