06/27/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Thanks for the Feedback

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On a recent flight, we sat next to a school principal en route to a conference on the West Coast. He was reading “Thanks for the Feedback,” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, busily underlining passages and making notes on a yellow legal pad. Once in a while, he’d stare up at the ceiling as if thinking about a passage and what it suggested about relationships in his school. Being curious, we couldn’t help but ask him about the book.

Turns out, this principal had a number of issues to address at his school. The school, an independent school in New England, was financially healthy and enrollment was strong. There was a great deal going right at the school, he said, but it was also going through a rough patch in which it was clear some things needed to change — and the intensity of the process, especially pushback from teachers, drove him to look for help. “Thanks for the Feedback,” he said, offered some helpful insights into the process of change, specifically about how to work with faculty members, all of whom bring their experiences, personalities, and agendas to every meeting. He also admitted it was helpful to him as a fairly new head.

So, of course, we had to order the book as soon as we got home and find out what all the fuss is about. “Thanks for the Feedback” was first published in 2014, so there’s a chance some of you have read it already. But assuming that many of you haven’t, we wanted to note a few ways in which the book can be very helpful to educators — especially in an era of constant change in schools.

“Thanks for the Feedback” not only helps us understand why some of us — well, most us — resist change, it also helps us develop the skills to better understand ourselves, the motivations behind any feedback we receive, and how we can use feedback wisely for our personal and professional gain.

As we know, certain kinds of feedback can be tough to take. Sometimes it comes in the form of praise and appreciation, which of course is wonderful — and needed. It’s difficult to keep one’s enthusiasm for work or relationships when we don’t feel appreciated and supported. But feedback in the form of criticism, advice, corrective evaluation, and even coaching can be destabilizing and challenging. It can momentarily send us into a tailspin. Few of us are instantly glad to be told we need to change.

One of our favorite passages in the book is the following that highlights the range of initial responses to a scenario of corrective feedback:

“Bryan blames others; Claire switchtracks [changes the subject]; Anu cries; Alfie apologies; Mick chatters; Hester goes silent; Fergie agrees while quietly resolving never to change. Reynolds lawyers up, emotionally speaking, and Jody becomes awkwardly friendly. And at least sometimes, Seth panics.”

If you don’t see yourself here, we imagine you can easily add a line that underscores your habitual reaction to tough criticism. For us, this observation strikes at a truth about our instinctive responses. It explains why, in organizations such as schools, efforts to make broad scale changes — say, requiring all teachers to engage in ongoing cultural skills training, asking the English department to improve its emphasis on writing and public speaking, or asking the science department to rethink the sequence of courses — can be so hard.

We’ve read many articles on the problem of resistance to change. We’ve listened to speakers highlight this resistance in tones that feel logical or that sometimes border on shaming. But few articles and speakers have taken the detailed next steps to deconstruct the process of giving and receiving feedback in a way that is both supportive and helpful. “Thanks for the Feedback” does take the needed steps to help us understand ourselves better, why and how we resist (collectively and individually), and what we can do about it so that the act of receiving feedback is as beneficial as possible.

We understand that in many instances, the feedback we get from family, friends, colleagues, bosses, and others is not always helpful and not always offered in the spirit of support. In truth, the authors make it clear that there are times when it’s perfectly fine and right to reject feedback. Sometimes the “problem” really does lie with the critic. There is, as it turns out, an art to offering valuable feedback well (see the authors’ earlier book, “Difficult Conversations”). But we imagine we would all admit, at least to ourselves, that there are aspects of our lives and work that we can improve upon. We can all learn and grow — and, in fact, we can all learn to appreciate the feedback. Even when it comes from a source we don’t fully trust, we can still keep our hearts and minds open and listen for what may be valid and valuable.

The title of this book, “Thanks for the Feedback,” can be read positively or negatively — as in “Thanks for the feedback, pal. Why don’t you find a hobby that will keep you out of my business.” Or “Thanks for the feedback. You make some valid points, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.” Or  “Thanks for feedback. It was truly helpful. It’s amazing how one small change can improve my relationship with students.” Authors Stone and Heen believe that, with practice, we can at least appreciate the offer of feedback and, better, find our way to a response that improves our lives and work. It only takes a bit of insight into the science and art of receiving feedback well — as well as a dose of emotional intelligence.

The book runs to more than 300 pages, so it’s not possible to cover it all here. For those who work in schools, we think it’s worth getting a copy and reading it with pencil in hand — and finding time to discuss core lessons with colleagues. But here, we’d like to highlight some specific advice that we think can be helpful in most instances.

We Are More Than Our Shortcomings

We should remember, the authors remind us more than once, that any critical feedback is not the sum total of who we are. As educators, all of us have our good qualities, our strengths. Yet, while it’s worth embracing what we know and do well, it would also be wise to keep an open mind, listen, and weigh options in response to feedback that challenges us to improve. As long as the feedback is offered in a spirit of support, it’s worth letting our boat be rocked a bit.

Understand Our Tendencies in Receiving Feedback

When all of us face feedback, we have a tendency to respond in predictable ways. The more we understand our personal patterns, our typical responses, the more we are able to control them. By noticing them, we can limit their power. So, if we’re the type who gets defensive, we’re not likely to be respond open-mindedly when we’re told, say, that we can improve the way we lead a class discussion. Stone and Heen would say getting defensive is OK as an initial reaction. But if we can notice this pattern, we can sit with our feelings longer and come to defuse them. In this way, we can start the process toward professional growth.

What also matters is the story we tell about ourselves. If we are educators who pride ourselves in our progressive views on education, say, but are then told we’ve exhibited racial bias, the misalignment between image and feedback can be disorienting. But if we slow down and listen openly we can work through our initial reaction, gather more information, understand better what is going on, and take steps that will make us better educators in the long run.

Embrace a Growth Mindset

Teaching is simple to describe. Every school has a short mission statement that clearly explains the school’s desired outcomes, which in turn guides every teacher in his or her work. But the practice of teaching is extremely complex because of the multitude of factors at play on any given day. This is why teaching is so difficult to master. Even those who have earned the label of master teacher will tell you they are learning how to improve their craft every day.

Given the nature of the profession, it’s so important that teachers remain open to learning, to feedback, to professional development, to coaching, and to peer support. Remaining open to feedback, especially when that feedback is critical of something you do or do not do, if it is challenging your professionalism on some level, is very difficult. The authors dig deeply into all the ways in which we can shut down or turn the tables on our critics — or simply dismiss them.

As human beings, we are susceptible to all of these reactions. Sometimes we’re right to have them. Sometimes we’re not. As educators, however, we know we must learn how to manage them. Our professional vow is to serve every child in every classroom as well as possibly can. There are always limits — mostly in the form of time — but the emphasis is on meeting the challenge with heart and skill. And this means staying open to learning and growing.

In another book we find valuable, “Getting to Yes,” authors Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton make the point that it’s better to focus on shared interests than on individual positions. Positions tend to fall into the category of demands and personal wishes. Focusing on interests tend to get us closer to the shared outcomes we collectively desire in schools.

Try Small Experiments

One of our favorite sections of the book encourages us to try small experiments when we are unsure about the feedback. A typical step in responding to challenging feedback is to weigh the pros and the cons. But in most case the status quo wins because, all things being equal, we’d rather not change. Even if we sort of know we need to change, we lean toward what is comfortable and predictable. So if the feedback is asking you to do something different, find a way to experiment with doing something different in the short term. This could mean offering a one-off course co-taught with a colleague from other department. It might mean teaching a series of new authors in English classes for a term. It might mean changing up class time for a week so that students are driving the conversation. It could mean inviting a colleague into your class to observe you. Etc. The results of any such experiment will teach you something valuable about how to move forward.

Support Each Other in Improving Together

What we like about the book is that the authors are clearly on our side. Their goal is to help all of us learn to help ourselves. Specifically, they want us to develop the skills so that we can use feedback to improve our personal and professional lives. But there are also ways we can mine the book collectively to improve collegial relations in school, open up collectively challenging topics, and together become the sort of educational community we believed we could become when we started this remarkable and important journey.

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