How to Effectively Incorporate Feedback

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thanks for the Feedback" by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do you do when someone gives you feedback? Do you think of ways to act on it? Or do you tend to brush it off?

Feedback is any information you receive about yourself— it’s how you’re ranked, thanked, described, and advised. It can be hard to hear feedback, and much training has been devoted to how to better give it. The key, though, is learning how to better incorporate feedback.

In this article, we’ll discuss some helpful tips and techniques that can help you get the most out of feedback.

Incorporating Feedback

It can be hard to hear feedback, and much training is devoted to how to give it. The key, though, is learning how to incorporate feedback. In their book Thanks for the Feedback, communication experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen discuss the following five approaches for incorporating feedback into your life:

  1. Focus on one thing.
  2. Look for appropriate options.
  3. Test with small experiments.
  4. Get properly motivated.
  5. Make the other person feel included.

1. Focus on One Thing

Sometimes feedback has several strands and encompasses a wide area. Often it is vague. Get a handle on it by approaching just one specific aspect of it first.

  • Take it step-by-step: Instead of asking, “Can I get some feedback?” ask, “What’s one thing you see me doing that I can improve?” or “What am I not doing that I should be?” 
  • Look for themes: Ask several people the “one thing” question to get a fuller picture. Then look for themes and commonalities among that feedback you receive. If your feedback is, for example, related to a performance review, seek out two or three colleagues as well as your manager and maybe someone from a different department, and ask them one thing they see you doing that you could improve.
  • Focus on impact: Ask the feedback-giver for one thing you could do that would make a difference to her specifically. Framing the question in this way can reveal issues at the core of your intersection with her. When a mother asks her kids what’s one thing she could do that would help them out, one of them might reply, “We never go on hikes as a family anymore.” His feedback might reveal a lack of connection that she had overlooked in the busyness of daily life.

2. Look for Options

Once you’ve successfully understood the feedback you’re presented with and you’ve decided to incorporate it into your life, you must figure out exactly how to do that. Make sure you understand the giver’s true interests, then look for options that address them.

Positions are what people say they want; interests are what they actually want. A person might say “I want you to be on time,” but what they really mean is “I want you to care.” Look for options that address their underlying concern. If a doctor is getting complaints that she’s regularly late for appointments, hanging a sign in the waiting room explaining that patients are never rushed through appointments and therefore appointments can sometimes run late lets her patients know that the issue is not that she doesn’t care about them, but that she cares a lot.

3. Test With Small Experiments

At times, even when you know you need to change, it can be hard to let go of habits that are comfortable and predictable. At other times, you’re not sure if changing is the right way to go. And sometimes, you’re not sure if you want to bother changing, even if you know the feedback you’ve received is spot-on. This is especially true if the problem hasn’t impacted your life in a huge way—yet. Maybe you know you are always late to things, but in general, other than missing a few opening acts and having to apologize to friends left waiting, it hasn’t resulted in any huge problems.  

Whether you’re not sure how to get started, not sure if you should, or not sure whether to bother, running small experiments is a great way to put that metaphorical toe in the water. Testing out advice on a small level lowers the stakes and the potential costs of committing to a big change. It also shows the other person that you are taking their insights seriously, which can have relationship advantages that reach beyond this specific issue. 

  • Run thought experiments: Sometimes simply running through the experiment in your head is enough to reveal some insight. Sit with the possibility that the feedback is true for a few days. Take some time to think about it, allowing your emotions to cool and your triggers to fade. This will enable you to see what might be right even if you don’t agree with the overall assessment.
  • Run real-world experiments: Think about a small, introductory way that you can try out the advice you’ve received. Been told to exercise more but joining a gym is a big budgetary commitment? Instead, commit to going for a jog once a week, or doing ten push-ups every morning. Low-cost experiments can show you how changes are more approachable than you might have expected.

4. Get Properly Motivated

You can increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with a new behavioral regime by increasing the immediate, tangible benefits of change.

  • Make it social: Partnering with another person incorporates an element of fun to something that might not otherwise be and helps us stick with changes. It reframes your struggle as “our struggle.” It makes you accountable to someone else. 
  • Keep score: Find ways to measure your progress on your journey of change and then compete against them, trying to best yourself. Games appeal to our instincts for fun and for mastering problems, and they provide opportunities for dopamine hits that increase the pleasure you get out of an activity. So-called “gamification” is now used in all sorts of pursuits to encourage people to do things, like science courses that use competition to hook their students on finding knowledge. 
  • Increasing the stakes: Invent a consequence that will inspire you to stay the course. You might want to enlist a friend to help you with this, as you’re likely to end up not following through on any consequences you’ve set for yourself. For example, a doctor who helped other doctors break their drug habits did so in part by having each of them write a letter to the medical board confessing their addiction. They then gave that letter, signed, addressed, and stamped, to a friend, with instructions to mail it if they lapsed. In this way, they made their commitment not just about their own addiction, but about their career, too. 

Be aware that things often get harder before they get easier when you start on a new program of change. We are often less efficient, comfortable, or happy when we begin to work on new skills. This is typically the point at which most people abandon the program. To prevent this, commit to pursuing your new course of action for a specifically designated period of time so your program has the time it needs to start working. This might be three days, two weeks, or a year, depending on the specifics of your project.

5. Make the Other Person Feel Included

Allowing the feedback-giver to help you can transform your relationship. The fact that you are trusting of her and confident enough to ask for her help makes her feel appreciated and respected. Being open to her advice also allows her to feel open to your advice later. If there’s something you want to talk to another person about, but she seems resistant, try opening yourself up to advice from her first on something else. It may spark the connection she needed to allow her to listen to your feedback.

In the end, feedback isn’t just about the quality of the advice—it’s about the quality of the relationship between you.

How to Effectively Incorporate Feedback

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  • How to better receive feedback, rather than just giving it
  • Why people tend to respond negatively towards feedback
  • How to successfully incorporate feedback into your life

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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