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Mind Your Feedback

Douglas Stone, 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), introduces a cautionary lesson in assessing others from Embodied Leadership: A Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership, by Pete Hamill.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

I’m a communications guy—it’s what I think about and teach all day long. Yet no matter how many times I’m confronted with the crucial distinction between assessments and facts, which is what Pete Hamill discusses in the excerpt you’re about to read, I’m always caught short. My opinions about other people feel like facts. My brain distinguishes very little between “2+2=4” and “you are annoying and lazy.” I feel certain that both are objectively true.

That’s a big problem. Being good at giving feedback requires us to know the difference between fact and opinion (even when it’s well reasoned), not because it changes the content of the feedback we give, but because it changes how we talk about the feedback—and that changes everything.

It is much harder to communicate constructively about assessments and opinions than it is about facts; it requires not only clear explanation, but also the ability to listen with genuine curiosity. It requires that we move past arguments about who is right and who is wrong, and into a two-way conversation about why I see you differently from how you see yourself, and what we should make of that.

If there’s any leadership task that is harder than listening with an open mind even when you have a strong view, I haven’t encountered it. And surely, none is more important.

Douglas Stone

An excerpt from chapter 8 of Embodied Leadership:
The Somatic Approach to Developing Your Leadership

Assessments are our opinions, perspectives, interpretations or judgements. If you think about it, the chances are that you are paid for your assessments—they are the educated opinions that you have about your business, having spent time in the industry/organization/sector or having expertise in a particular field.

What assessments are not is facts, and this is a major source of conflict in organizations. If I observe someone yawning and looking out the window during my presentation, I may have the assessment that they are tired, bored, uninterested or any other of a variety of different assessments. Once I have the germ of an idea in my head that this person is uninterested in what I am working on, then I will start looking for evidence to corroborate that belief—human beings love nothing more than to be right!

Soon I will have more evidence—instances where the person looked at their watch whilst I was speaking, further yawning when I am speaking in meetings and so on. I will also start to block out the occasions when they do respond well to me, or explain them away as being about something else—for instance: “They just wanted to show up well to the boss who was in that meeting.” Over a relatively short time I will have a collection of evidence that this person is uninterested in my work. If I was never really close to this person, perhaps I can then take an extra leap and say that the person never really liked me anyway.

Eventually I will have a clear perspective on this person and who they are, and often my belief about it will be unshakeable. However, this isn’t true. It’s not false either. It lies in the world of opinions, which are not facts and therefore cannot be true or false. You and I can go to a movie and have completely different opinions about the movie, the actors and actresses in it, the core message of the plot lines and so on. These will be our opinions and we can spend hours arguing over them, but the reality is they are not truth or falsehood—they are our opinions.

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.

As human beings we love nothing more than being right, and having that taken away from us is a painful, and very necessary, process, because when we are right, we are generally making someone else wrong, and generally the other person doesn’t like that too much, and misunderstanding and conflict can arise. True humility is, at least in part, being able to see one’s own assessments as assessments, rather than believing them to be truths.

—Pete Hamill

This excerpt from Embodied Leadership by Pete Hamill has been reproduced with the permission of Kogan Page Publishers.

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