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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Mind Your Feedback

Let me give another example to help clarify this. There was snow lying in parts of Central London (something that is relatively rare) during the winter of 2010–11. For my Kenyan friend, who lives in London, this was a massive snowfall; for my Finnish wife, it wasn’t even proper snow. These are the assessments that each holds for the same event, and there is no right and wrong and there is no truth in these assessments. Arguing about these would be pointless. The assessments have their roots in the backgrounds of the people concerned—a Kenyan upbringing versus a Finnish one. Assessments, therefore, can say a lot more about us than about the thing that we believe we are describing.

Assessments can say a lot more about us than about the thing that we believe we are describing.

Underlying those assessments are “assertions”—in the example above, for instance, that there were two inches of snow in parts of central London. These we can say are true or false, because we can measure them against an agreed frame of reference (inches or centimetres), and we can all go and measure it and agree on the same measurement.

If we go back to the example of my colleague who yawns, all we can agree on is that he yawned and looked out of the window for a short period of time (perhaps 30 seconds) during my presentation. This is something that could be agreed on by all who were present. The interpretation or assessment I come to about that is my own creation, and says something about my background and standards—just as their assessments about the snow say something about my Kenyan friend and my Finnish wife.

Our assessments reveal our standards. When we give our opinions on our businesses or organizations (strategies to choose, products to launch, trades to make, services to procure) we are paid for our educated assessments, where our standards have been educated through our experience, training and feedback over our career.

When we are dealing with people, we also have assessments. However, have we really educated ourselves in our ability to make assessments on other people? It’s hard to get feedback on whether the standards through which we make these assessments are useful or helpful to us, and most of the time we do it unconsciously and don’t pay much attention to it.

For example, how much attention did I pay in the process of developing my assessment of my colleague being uninterested during my presentation? It probably happened in milliseconds. Getting to the assessment of someone who never really liked me anyway didn’t take that much longer—it just required that I collect a bit more evidence.

Once I have reached my conclusion, how would I react to being told that my assessment of someone wasn’t true or false, but was in fact, just my opinion? I have given that feedback to quite a number of people, and I can assure you the reaction is generally not that positive. “But you don’t know this person—s/he really is like that…” is a common response. The challenge is that we don’t really notice that it is not an objective truth about the person, but an assessment we have created about them. We believe that our opinion is how it actually is and we start to treat it as truth. This becomes a recipe for conflict and distrust in organisations (and in other areas of our lives as well).

The thing is that assessments are not a bad thing—it’s forgetting that they are an opinion that gets us into trouble. Even if our assessments are well grounded with evidence (assertions), they are not true or false—they are still opinions we have created from the evidence. And even as I write this, I know that there will be some people reading this who believe that in their case, with the person they know, it’s different and their assessment is true.

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The Reviewer

  1. Douglas Stone is the cofounder and managing partner of Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer at Harvard Law School, where he teaches negotiation. Stone is coauthor of 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) (with Sheila Heen, Viking, 2014) and the New York Times business bestseller Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (with Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, Viking, 1999).

This Book

  1. Embodied Leadership: The Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership (Kogan Page, 2013), by Pete Hamill

    Pete Hamill is a leadership and organizational development consultant, executive coach, and program director at the Roffey Park Institute. He has been certified by the Strozzi Institute as a master somatic leadership coach. Embodied Leadership is his first book.

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