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Book review: Thanks for the Feedback, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen have taught negotiation at Harvard Law School for two decades.

David Wilson

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen have taught negotiation at Harvard Law School for two decades. Their line is that other consultants over-stress the art of giving feedback, neglecting how to receive it. sets out to redress the balance - a vital task, say the authors, because feedback usually riles the contact or colleague at the sharp end.

"The co-worker is upset and defensive, and ends up less motivated, not more," they write, adding the resistance may be justified, for reasons such as: "The feedback is unfair or off base. It's poorly timed and even more poorly delivered. And it's not clear why the giver thinks they are qualified to offer an opinion; they may be the boss, but they don't really understand what we do or the constraints we're under."

Despite the high risk that feedback involves, it can be delivered successfully, the authors say, splitting their subject into three tiers: appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Likewise, they map three triggers liable to cause friction.

The first, the "truth trigger", is set off by the feedback's substance, which may be "off", unhelpful or untrue. The "relationship trigger" is tripped by existing tension between giver and recipient. The "identity trigger" is personal: it hits a nerve, causing the receiver to feel ashamed or threatened, for example.

The authors advise that you recognise your blind spots and avoid switchbacks: do not let your emotions shunt a challenging chat sideways. Also, identify the "relationship system" - establish who is at fault and must change. In addition, learn how wiring and temperament shape your outlook - understand your built-in neural connections.

And do not forget to dismantle distortions: get to grips with your "feedback footprint", minding the set of reactive behaviours you habitually adopt in response to criticism, the authors suggest. Their final tall order is that you cultivate a growth mindset - or try. Debate rages about whether various traits are fixed or elastic, they say.

Either way, as so often with self-improvement guides, the rub is that you may strain to comply with the coaching. Attaining the smart, saint-like humility advocated would demand epic perseverance, if success is even possible - the human mind constantly scans for threat, the authors note, suggesting that everyone has a paranoid streak.

Just finishing their guide, comprising 309 rambling pages, takes grit.

However, if you can apply their wisdom to "life's blizzard of comments and advice with curiosity and grace", the gains can be great.