Getting Feedback Right

Ethan McCoy

Among the speakers at the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston will be Douglas Stone, lecturer at Harvard Law School and co-author of two New York Times bestsellers, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Doug’s work focuses on helping organizations, leaders, and teams with crucial communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills. At CEP, we’re all about the power of feedback and how listening to stakeholders including grantees, donors, and staff can help foundations improve their effectiveness. We are thrilled to have Doug speak to foundation leaders at our conference, and we asked him a few questions recently about giving and receiving feedback and having productive conversations about difficult topics — things that crop up in foundation work every day, yet are difficult to navigate and critical to effectiveness.

CEP: Our staff recently read your book Thanks for the Feedback in advance of a session about giving and receiving feedback at our annual staff retreat. There are so many layers of relevance in the book to our day-to-day work, both as supervisors and supervisees, but also as an organization that seeks to help foundations become more effective through learning from feedback. One particular aspect of foundation effectiveness is addressing an inherent power imbalance that can exist between foundations and their grantees, where foundations may not receive the feedback they need. Obviously this dynamic can exist at the supervisor-supervisee level, as well. What are some ways to navigate this power imbalance in giving and receiving feedback, and what can we all keep in mind when we find ourselves at one end or the other of this dynamic?

Doug Stone: One of the most interesting things we observed when we were exploring the topic of feedback is that among those who give and receive it, there’s almost a taboo about discussing the process and challenges of feedback. Taboo is too strong a word, but it’s surprising how few people will sit down with someone they are giving feedback to or receiving it from and discuss their purposes, their tendencies, and the various challenges inherent in the conversation.

So, we often hear questions like, “I want to give my colleague feedback, but I don’t know if they want it. How can I tell?” and, “I think my supervisor may be uncomfortable giving feedback, but I’m not sure. Is there anything I can do?” The answer to both questions is: discuss it directly. There’s a distinction, then, between the substantive feedback itself and the process of giving or receiving it. It’s enormously helpful to have a conversation about the process before actually discussing the substance. In the process conversation, you can ask questions like:

  • “What kind of feedback is most helpful to you?”
  • “What sort of coaching would be most useful?”
  • “What should I know about how you receive feedback that would help me give you feedback constructively?”
  • “What’s your thinking on the role of feedback and how to give it? What do you find challenging about it, and what can I do to help?”

Too often people think they are supposed to guess the answers to these questions. Don’t guess; talk about it.

Your question about grantees giving feedback to foundations has a similar answer. It’s true that giving feedback in the context of certain power structures can be challenging. One way to handle that challenge is to simply decide not to give the feedback. But that, of course, deprives the foundation of the opportunity to learn from their interactions with the grantee. A second way to handle it is to just dive in and hope for the best. That will sometimes go well and sometimes go poorly.

I think the best way to handle it is instead to make the process and challenges discussable. If I’m a grantee, I can ask the foundation what their ideas are for how they want to receive feedback. From there, it’s a negotiation. If the foundation staff member says, “well, we don’t really expect or particularly want any feedback,” the grantee can ask to hear more about why, and follow up with their view for why feedback in this context is important and helpful — to the foundation and to the grantee. The grantee’s purpose is not to force feedback on the foundation, but to make the best case they can.

The hard implicit question here is how a grantee should interact if they have feedback for the foundation, but fear that the foundation will somehow penalize the grantee (consciously, or perhaps unconsciously) in the future.

Here again, the best action is to try to make it discussable. Don’t say, “If we give you some difficult feedback, you’ll probably penalize us and that’s bad.” Instead, talk about the challenges inherent in the structure of the situation: “Here’s why we think offering feedback can be so valuable. At the same time, of course, it can be hard to give honest feedback to an organization that you rely on for funding and assistance. You’ve probably run into these questions before. How have you handled them in the past? Are there mechanisms that help mitigate any of these structural challenges?” There’s no guarantee that this conversation will make things easier, but I think it gives you the best shot.


CEP: In your work advising organizations on how to have productive difficult conversations, what has surprised you the most?

DS: I’ve never quite gotten used to how rarely people listen well to each other — whether they’re making important decisions together or are engaged in significant conflicts with each other. There’s no malice involved, and in fact, people will often assert that they have listened extensively to the other person. And they think they have. But it turns out that what they mean when they say that they’ve listened well is either that: a) they already know what the other person thinks and feels so there’s no reason to listen further, or b) that they have “heard the other person out,” by which they mean that they’ve heard the first — usually superficial — level of what it is the other person is saying.

But rarely have they gone deeper, rarely have they inquired and acknowledged. If our colleague says “We should go in direction A,” and we want to go in direction B, we usually respond with, “Well, I can see that there are benefits to direction A, but let me explain why B is better.” That doesn’t qualify as good listening. We should dig deeper into what direction A is (what, when, where, how, who), and most importantly, we should inquire into why.

“What do you see as the benefits of direction A? What do you see as the drawbacks? What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of direction B? From your point of view, why do you think you and I have different predictions and preferences about which direction is better?”

A common objection to digging deeper is, well, who has the time? And it’s true that you don’t have to go deeply into every little thing. But if a decision or conflict matters, then putting in the time to understand the other person’s view can be more efficient in the long run. And often, asking these questions and having a deeper discussion doesn’t end up taking all that much time.

The good news is this: just as I am surprised by how little good listening goes on, I am always pleasantly surprised by the positive impact it makes when one or both people in a conversation listen with skill and genuine curiosity.


CEP: Regardless of one’s political leanings, it’s safe to say that our public discourse has struggled to bridge large social divides in our country. Sometimes the art of having difficult conversations seems to elude us. Are there any examples that jump out at you in the social sector where deftly navigating a difficult conversation or one involving feedback made a difference in the outcome?

DS: Let me start by asserting that making a difference in the outcome isn’t the only reason to communicate well. I believe that good communication improves relationships, and good relationships are their own reward, whether or not the outcome moves in our favor.

At the moment, there are a number of dynamics working against good communication. Politicians on all sides have learned that emotion more than reason drives people to vote, and fear is the emotion that seems to work best. Some of us are motivated by the prospect of our candidate making positive change, but many of us are motivated by fear of where we’ll go if the other candidate gets in. At the same time, we’re all aware that the media landscape has shifted in the last number of years. More extreme views attract more downloads and more viewers.

The thing I find most disheartening is that recently I’ve heard people on various sides of the political spectrum saying they wish there was more dialogue. When I suggest they actually talk to someone with a different view, though, those same people will say, “Not this election. I’d talk to reasonable people, but in this election, there’s no point in talking to someone on the other side.”

So, they are saying, “I want to talk to the other side, but not to this current other side.” That obviously doesn’t make any sense. The purpose of talking, in this context, shouldn’t be to persuade the other person that you’re right, but rather to understand their view (again, with deep listening based in true curiosity), and to share your own view.

If you get to some problem solving, that’s good, too. What’s the benefit of that? If you really listen to someone who sees things differently from you, you will learn something, and the other person probably will, too. After the conversation you might respect them less (if you do, you do), but more likely, you’ll respect them more and they are more likely to respect you. That doesn’t address the deep differences on any number of issues, but we have a better shot at dealing well with the conflicts if we understand each other and at least attempt to respect each other.

Regarding your question about the social sector, I think there are many examples of people and organizations doing great work to creatively manage differences. For example, labor leaders and environmental leaders have many differences and are sometimes at odds with each other. At the same time, when they talk, engage, and negotiate, they’ve been able to develop creative approaches that meet important interests of both sides. I’m less aware of recent examples in the political sector (i.e. Congress). It’s not because the issues that divide the sides are too divisive, although they are divisive; it’s that they aren’t communicating across the aisle.

Doug Stone will be speaking at Leading Effective Foundations, the 2017 CEP Conference at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel April 4-6, 2017. Learn more about the conference and register at

2017 Conference, CEP conference, , Grantee Feedback
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