Avoiding Airballs and Conflict in Giving and Receiving Feedback

Recently, I’ve been sharing some “a-ha moments” and takeaways that I’ve had as CEP staff have embarked on learning together from the book Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Sheila Heen and Doug Stone (the latter of whom will be speaking at CEP’s 2017 conference next April!).

One of the things that I’ve found particularly helpful about the book is the clear and straightforward way in which the authors identify just three kinds of feedback that one can give:

  1. Appreciation: a relational “thank you” that allows others and their work to feel appreciated, seen, and understood.
  2. Coaching: input that seeks to help someone develop, improve, and grow. This can be spurred by a need to grow in a particular area or to address a perceived issue with the relationship itself.
  3. Evaluation: an assessment against a set of standards that helps with aligning expectations and decision making.

As human beings, we need all three types of feedback, even as some (giving appreciation) can be easier than others (giving an evaluation). The trouble is that we are always conflating the three so that it’s often unclear what the giver intends to convey, or what the receiver expects or needs to hear.

This dynamic often leads to confusion, missed opportunities, and inevitable conflict. To use a basketball analogy, I picture figurative “airballs” that aim and shoot but miss the intended goal of productive feedback conversations. Even with the best of intentions, our efforts to appreciate, coach, or provide evaluative feedback can miss everything and fall short — or even damage our relationships if we’re not careful.

Moreover, among these three, evaluation is often the sledgehammer that speaks the loudest in the mind of the receiver, and there are often strands of evaluation that are implicit in coaching conversations. It can be bewildering for a receiver of feedback to know what was intended, potentially triggering defensiveness, unspoken assumptions, and an inability to absorb the feedback. (“Am I just receiving some helpful suggestions or am I doing this all wrong?”)

When I read this section of the book, I had to laugh as I recognized myself in these patterns both at home and at work. I can’t count how many times when, for instance, I’ve looked for appreciation or coaching but received evaluation instead — or dished out appreciation instead of helpful advice when asked. I’m amazed at how many conflicts and missed opportunities I could have avoided had I known about these dynamics earlier.

In the world of philanthropy, particularly as a power imbalance often exists between funders and grantees, it seems vital for us to recognize these patterns and pitfalls in conversations about creating the change we hope to see in the world. The stakes are high to get this right. Since funders and grantees each bring unique roles, perspectives, and resources to bear on their relationship with one another, ensuring that two-way feedback is as unencumbered as possible can only benefit and propel the work forward. 

The remedy that Stone and Heen prescribe to these conundrums is both simple and hard: quite simply, we must clearly separate out each strand of feedback and make sure that both parties are on the same page about the goal of the conversation. In practice, this is hard. As givers and receivers of feedback, we often don’t enter these conversations with a clear sense of what we are hoping to achieve.

Moreover, when CEP staff discussed this topic at a recent retreat, a colleague also pointed out that it can be awkward to explicitly discuss what each person thinks the conversation is about at the start, even if it is important. That led to a conversation as a full staff — and ultimately a shared agreement — that we would seek to push past the awkwardness and talk about it anyway, since it would help us be our best.

How do we do that? Stone and Heen suggest that both the giver and receiver first ask themselves these questions prior to a feedback conversation:

  1. What is my purpose in giving/receiving this feedback?
  2. Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
  3. Is it the right purpose from the other person’s point of view?

During the conversation, checking in regularly on the joint understanding can be helpful. For example, if you’re providing the feedback, take a pause and ask, “My hope is that this conversation is providing helpful coaching — is that how you’re understanding it?” If either party has a different understanding of what is needed, the authors suggest that the very act of clarifying is valuable. This may seem awkward or robotic, but getting to alignment in these conversations can help pave the way to improved performance and more productive relationships so that we can all be more effective in our work.

It feels pretty daunting to put what we’ve learned as a staff into practice, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. If you have relevant experiences or insights to share, we’d love to hear from you!

Grace Nicolette is vice president, programming at external relations, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @GraceNicolette and contact her at gracen(at)cep.org.