The Role of Temperament in Receiving 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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How do you react to feedback? Do you tend to get defensive when receiving feedback, especially when it’s negative? Why do you think that is? How long does it take you to “recover”?

Different people react to feedback with different degrees of sensitivity. Some people can take negative feedback, absorb it, be upset by it, and then bounce back to their typical sunny dispositions. Other people are floored by negative feedback and find it hard to bounce back at all.

In this article, you’ll learn why you react to feedback the way you do, according to communication experts Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Our Instinctive Reactions to Feedback

The primary difficulty in receiving feedback is that it tends to trigger emotional responses that cloud our judgment and prevent us from properly comprehending the feedback.

According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, the authors of Thanks for the Feedback, your individual reaction to feedback involves three variables:

  1. Your baseline: your default emotional state
  2. Your swing: the amount you move off your baseline when you receive feedback
  3. Your recovery: the duration of your reaction

The combination of these three variables together makes up your temperament. 

Your Baseline

Though you are emotionally affected by individual events, these emotional adjustments happen against a more stable backdrop of your general state of mind: your baseline. Once the initial rush of an event has passed—the thrill of landing your first job or the sadness you felt when your dog died—you return to your general baseline. Each person has her own individual baseline and these can vary enormously. One person might seem perpetually grumpy while another seems inexplicably upbeat.

Your baseline affects how you receive feedback. People with happier baselines respond to positive feedback more strongly than do people with less-rosy baselines. People with lower overall satisfaction respond more strongly to negative feedback than do their rosier counterparts. 

Your Swing

Some people will swing farther from their baselines than others in response to feedback; some stay within a relatively narrow emotional band while others react more strongly in either direction—positive and negative. 

But whether or not we are highly sensitive or fairly even-keeled, “bad” typically registers more strongly than “good.” We respond faster and stronger to threats than we do to pleasures. This explains why we often focus on the one negative remark that’s sandwiched between ten positive comments. 

Your Recovery

The final variable is the duration of your emotional swing is how long it takes you to return to your baseline. Again, there is a lot of individual variability. Some people recover quickly to even the most distressing feedback, while others might still be feeling the sting months later. Likewise, some people can maintain the glow of a positive review for the rest of the day, while for others, it fades within minutes.

Our recovery tendencies can affect the strength of our swings and vice versa, creating both virtuous and vicious cycles. Those who hold on to their positive feelings after a boost can find it easier to later ride out a bump. Those who have trouble recovering from a setback often have a weaker subsequent response to positive feedback.

The Role of Temperament in Receiving Feedback

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Here's what you'll find in our full Thanks for the Feedback summary:

  • 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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