The Three Kinds of Feedback and our Triggers


Every time we engage in a transaction or renew a membership, we're asked for feedback. We receive feedback after events and meetings we organize with clients and colleagues. The problem with feedback is that we rarely know how to give it well, and seldom learn how to take it.    

Maybe we fail to recognize that feedback is a conversation. Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Michel de Montaigne said, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

We live in the tension between being and becoming. For any significant growth to occur, we want to develop greater awareness of our impact on others, because that is the system that feeds back wisdom to us. The way we engage in it speaks as much about how we think and who we are and want to be as it does about the circumstance, transaction, or product and service in question.

Feedback is often highly subjective

while at the same time valuable.

It helps us zero into what is useful, important, event critical, interesting, and entertaining. Feedback is how we get so good they' can't ignore us. Comedian Steve Martin seeks feedback systematically as he explores lots of ideas.

Marvin Minski, the pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (AI), said there is tremendous value in negative knowledge. For example, looking to never make mistakes. In space, “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, says Colonel Chris Hadfield, because conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement.

Feedback is information about us that can teach us something we can combine with the direct experiences we have to improve. Without it, we have no way of knowing what others hear, see, like, and so on. For any learning and growth to occur we want feedback. 

   But if providing feedback is difficult,

receiving it is even harder.

We can learn to think about it in more ways than one to make it useful. Not all feedback needs ranking, sometimes it means we're thanking someone, commenting on something.

We can choose to either invite it or drop it. In similar ways there is tension between knowing and learning, there's tension between our desire to learn and our need to be accepted. However, “we can't focus on improving when we don't know where we stand, say Douglas Stone and Sheela Heen in Thanks for the Feedback.

We're all familiar with how it feels to be on the receiving end. Says Stone:

“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.”

Whatever form and intention it may take, being on the receiving end of feedback challenges us. To up our game, we want to “take an honest look at why receiving feedback is hard. Learning to take it means acquiring the skill to engage in the conversation mindfully and make better decisions about what we choose to keep and how we use the information.

Pulling the right trigger

As we embark on our mission to make feedback useful on the receiving end, we should first learn to identify three kinds of triggers:

1. truth triggers — are about the substance of the feedback, which triggers cognitive and emotional reactions in us. We're familiar with the mechanics of how these go because we're quick to think or say the other person is simply unfair, unhelpful, and wrong, wrong, wrong. Yet when we give feedback, we're always right…

…the challenge here is seeing properly.

2. relationship triggers — are about the particular person who is giving us feedback. Relationships exist at the intersection of things and people, which means we want to understand the system we're in to move past the blame game and create joint accountability…

…the challenge here is “we.”

3. identity triggers — are all about our sense of who we are. When we're hit in our very sense of self, we clamp up as we try to defend our own respect…

…the challenge here is “me.”

How do we go from it to me to we productively? By learning to separate the type of feedback we're giving, seeking first to understand, seeing our blind spots, separating what from who, identifying the relationship system, learning how wiring affects our story, dismantling distortions, and cultivating a growth mindset.

Purpose goes a long way

There are three possible kinds of feedback we could give — appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. We should choose wisely to achieve our goals.

Because the challenge in how we receive it also depends on our state of mind and mood, is based on the situation and context, learning how to deliver the proper kind of feedback goes a long way in helping us hear properly what we're getting.

Building from experience on the material of the book:

1. appreciation says “I see you,” “I know how hard you've been working,” “you matter to me” — it's motivating, empowering even, to be acknowledged, especially by a manager or a leader, but also by our peers. Because we want to know what we do matters.

This is where most customer service battles could be better. Businesses that show customers they care, people who show they notice things alone go a long way in connecting emotionally, which then opens the door for more cognitive data and support.

Stories play a significant role in conveying appreciation. But we must take care to be specific for it to count. Follow, “I appreciate you” with specifically how and why to activate the good feelings we want to elicit.

Appreciation must be authentic and substantial to work well, not just ring as such. Imagine what it would be like to get a star just for showing up! There's little growth here.

2. the purpose of coaching is to provide more direction, to help someone grapple with change, learn, and grow. We need coaching to improve our knowledge or skill and build capability so we can tackle new challenges. In this case we're proactive in seeking support. 

But there's also a kind of coaching where someone else identifies our need to develop certain skills because they see we could use improvement. In this case, signs of anxiety, fear, confusion, hurt, anger prompt the need for fixing the emotional problem.

Coaching is useful for collaborations to work better, but in many organizations it's either not recognized or rewarded. To be effective, coaches need to appreciate what the person they're providing feedback to need in specific situations.

Someone may bee seeking appreciation and got evaluation. Maybe we intend to give one kind of feedback but the person receiving it misunderstood us. Understanding the gap between expectations and what we deliver helps us provide feedback that is more useful.

Another wrinkle in coaching is that evaluation plays a part in it. We assess where someone is to help them practice how to improve. On the receiving end we can help ourselves by slowing things down enough to check in on whether we're in a bad mood or situation when the coaching hits us.

3. evaluation is typically not our favorite, but it's the most valuable tool we have to help align expectations, clarify consequences, and inform decision-making. We need evaluation to get a baseline, to rate or rank things. As long as we have a set of standards that everyone understands, we should embrace it.

Sometimes evaluation includes judgement that goes beyond the strict assessment brief. We call this judgement opinion and usually comes wrapped into either negative or positive undertones. The negative part is what we don't like about feedback. We embrace reassurances.

Evaluation is the loudest form of feedback. It can drown out the other two, but it is the one we want to know where we stand. Without evaluation we're left to guessing, or trying to infer from situations. This would make it harder to improve.

Mixing types of feedback or crossing wires on purpose do not help. Moving targets also make it hard to achieve clarity. With feedback, agreement can be the highest form of misunderstanding. Which is why we should actively seek explicit disagreement. Enemies do make for better allies than frenemies.

But we can also learn better ways to make our input positive. When we founded The Searls Group, Doc Searls set out to build better markets, not just better marketing by “helping clients understand and engage their markets, rather than helping them craft and send messages to those markets.”

Whether you need feedback for a product, service, or personal growth, Thanks for the Feedback provides a framework and some tools that can help us metabolize challenging information and use it to fuel insight and growth. It will also make us better feedback givers. With more power, leaders and managers also have more responsibility to get it less wrong.

There's much more we can learn about feedback and its different applications. I'll leave that to future posts. Learning how to improve in receiving feedback is critical in our ability to succeed in our work and lives, but also in giving feedback to others.

When we become better at evaluating, coaching, and appreciating others, our relationships improve, we're better customers and buyers, we're better clients and consultants, collaborators and individual players. All of which makes us good leaders, managers, and contributors.

A good starting point in conversation:

  • seek first to understand — what kind of feedback does the situation warrant? What are the truth, relationship, and/or identity triggers? Are we getting what we need? Here's an example of how to structure a conversation for understanding.
  • watch for the role of opinion — are we letting negativity color how we perceive remarks? Are we getting positive feedback but not specific enough to be helpful?
  • separate what from who — are there two topics weaved together here? Is where we stand in our relationship in there? Are we too keen on trying to get respect to miss the useful bits?