The following is a conversation between Sheila Heen, Harvard Law professor, and Co-Author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: In today’s episode of The Business of Giving, we tackle the challenges of difficult conversations and receiving feedback. Whether it’s our personal or professional lives, these situations can be uncomfortable and often lead to miscommunication and hurt feelings. But fear not, my next guest is a world-renowned negotiation expert who will help us navigate these challenges with greater confidence and ease.

She is Sheila Heen, founder of the Triad Consulting Group, a professor of practice at Harvard Law School where she leads a negotiation program, and co-author of the 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.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Sheila.

Sheila Heen, Harvard Law professor, and Co-Author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

Sheila: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.

Denver: Delighted to have you. You fell in love with negotiations soon after you took a course about it in college. What was it about that that captivated you so?

Sheila: Well, it’s interesting. I was really hamstrung trying to decide where to go to law school. And I was caught between… I had already put down my deposit at Stanford and suddenly got an answer from Harvard. And one of my advisors who taught negotiation in college, but I never took his course. I took his Con law course, but not his negotiation course.

Denver: Got it.

Sheila: But he said to me, Harvard has this whole negotiation thing, and I just have an instinct it might be your deal. So I trusted him, and thank goodness I did, because I did take negotiation my first year of law school and just immediately fell in love with it.

I just thought it’s such an interdisciplinary study of human beings and the way that we influence each other, fail to influence each other, bump into each other, irritate each other, collaborate well, and go to war. And that is an amazing array of things to learn for a lifetime. And so far, so good, honestly.

Denver: No question. As a matter of fact, if I had a question about what’s the best advice you’ve ever received, I wouldn’t have to ask it because I think I just heard the best advice you’ve ever received. And…

Sheila: Nice point. Very nice point.

“Kids are really natural negotiators, which I guess is a way to say that human beings are natural negotiators. That as a kid, you’re paying very close attention, consciously and unconsciously, to what works with your parents and caregivers to get what you want. And you’re instinctively going to repeat whatever works.”

Denver: Set the trajectory of your life…. You say that some of the most effective negotiators are kids, and you having three of them, you would know. What makes them so good at this?

Sheila: Kids are really natural negotiators, which I guess is a way to say that human beings are natural negotiators. That as a kid, you’re paying very close attention, consciously and unconsciously, to what works with your parents and caregivers to get what you want. And you’re instinctively going to repeat whatever works.

So if having a tantrum, or crying works, well, so be it. Like I don’t have any moral…

Denver: That’s my go-to.

Sheila: …sense yet of what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I’m just going to do what works. And so as parents and adults negotiating with kids, “negotiating with kids” in air quotes, I think that we’re always playing catch up. We’re always playing catch up because they’re noticing what works with us in ways that are blind spots sometimes for us, right?

Because we’re not self-aware of when we get to the end of our rope and why, and so we accidentally reward bad behavior. And then also, every time we sort of figure them out, they change. And they’re at a new stage of development with new skills and insights and challenges.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we’re kind of set in our ways, so when I think about my negotiating style, it’s kind of static. But I would imagine in that sort of experimental mode of just tinkering, it’s probably good advice for any organization: Just keep on trying different things until one starts working.

Sheila: That’s exactly right. And one of the things that we do on the very first day of negotiation class at Harvard Law School is that we invite people to do a self-portrait of themselves as a kid negotiator.

Denver: Oh, wow.

Sheila: What did you learn about how to get…

Denver: I love that.

Sheila: …what you wanted with the people around you? And then they introduce themselves to their classmates with these amazing stories, right, of interacting with friends and siblings and parents and et cetera, and the strategies that worked. And what’s interesting is that by the end of the semester… throughout the semester, we’re like: Are you doing that thing that you were doing in your portrait over there on the wall?

By the end of the semester, they kind of redraw their portrait to say: What are the new skills I needed to stretch into? What are the reactions or bad habits I want to leave behind? How do I want to actually expand my repertoire rather than just under stress, we tend to revert to our natural instinctive skills? And those are often shaped very early on, which also means that we’re learning them from our parents, for better and for worse.

“…what really sets great negotiators and great leaders apart is a capacity to be curious and to listen and to connect with where other people are coming from that might be very different than how I see something. And so part of what we teach is advocacy that is grounded in deep empathy so that you can understand: Here’s what this person cares about; this is what they worry about.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I still have tantrums now and again, so I guess we do….

We also assume, Sheila, that persuasion is about talking. I mean, I spend a lot of time making my case, getting pretty convincing, having my points; I mean, they’re bulletproof, and don’t always work. You say a case could be made that listening is actually even more effective than being persuasive. Tell us what you mean by that.

Sheila: Yeah, what really sets great negotiators and great leaders apart is a capacity to be curious and to listen and to connect with where other people are coming from that might be very different than how I see something. And so part of what we teach is advocacy that is grounded in deep empathy so that you can understand: Here’s what this person cares about; this is what they worry about.

This is what… actually, now that I understand it, is actually pretty legitimate. It might change my view at least a little bit. If I’m a really good listener, that sets a foundation for both of us because one of us has to listen first, and if I am open to persuasion, or I demonstrate what in the literature is called conversational receptiveness– willing to listen to and understand and be curious about your perspective, you are much more likely to reciprocate that.

So what studies show and my colleagues’ over at the Kennedy School, Julia Minson, and the Business School, Francesca Gino, as well as a guy named Mike Yeoman, have done recent studies on conversational receptiveness. And what they’ve found is that if you demonstrate that receptiveness, the other person thinks that you have better judgment because, of course, you’re open to what they have to say. So…

Denver: they’re listening to what I’m saying.

Sheila: …clearly a person of fine judgment.

Denver: Absolutely, smarter than I thought.

Sheila: They’re actually more interested and willing to be influenced by you. They like you more. And they’re more interested in partnering with you to discuss tough issues in the future. So if that’s the impact that listening can have, or just openness can have, why would we pass that up?

Denver: Why do we pass it up? Because we do.

Sheila: We do pass it up. And I think it has to do with some of the research in neuroscience around this thing called mirror neurons. Have you been reading about this, Denver?

Denver: Sure. Yeah.

Sheila: So the easiest way for me to get a handle on why the mirror neuron research is relevant for what we’re talking about, has to do with research from a woman named Tania Singer. And in the earliest versions of her studies, she was in Switzerland at the University of Zurich.

When she started this work, she would bring married couples into her lab, and she would seat them facing each other. And she would hook them up to electrodes to map brain activity… just blood to different parts of the brain as they process what’s happening. So, she’s in the booth, and she’s looking at the two screens and watching how they each process what happens.

And then she administers an electric shock to one of the spouses. And of course on the screen for that spouse, she sees the pattern of brain activity and what she sees in the brain of the spouse who was watching is an echo or mirror of that same activity, as if they themselves were being shocked.

So the only thing that doesn’t light up is the actual pain. It’s not that you believe you’ve been shocked, but you’re having a vicarious experience. You’re putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. So, great, mirror neurons are not a type of neuron; they’re describing that phenomenon.

And so human beings, I think, are hardwired for empathy. It’s why horror movies work, right? It’s why any movie works. You laugh, you cry. It’s why The Shining was so devastating.

Denver: One of the great movies, yeah.

Sheila: Yes. But here’s the key thing… and circling back to your question, Tania was occasionally getting these outlier results where she’d shock one spouse and get no mirror neuron response from the spouse watching.

So she started getting curious about why, and what she found was not what she first hypothesized, which was, well, maybe they’re not happily married, right? That was actually not true. Generally speaking, they might answer the questionnaire that they were totally happily married. What mattered was whether they had a fight on the way to the lab.

Denver: Oh, wow. Recency bias.

Sheila: Yeah. Like if I’m currently frustrated with you, no mirror neurons. Come on, give it to me, I’ll shock him myself. You know?

Denver: There you go.

Sheila: So I do think that this has really important implications for us because it suggests that we’re hardwired for empathy, but it also suggests that we can turn it off. And that it’s exactly when we’re frustrated with each other, that we’re least curious. And so, I think that listening when we’re frustrated or in conflict is never going to be a natural move. It’s got to be a learned move.

Denver: Got you.

Sheila: And that’s why we don’t do it.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That’s the time you really do need to listen and…

Sheila: Exactly. And…

Denver: …it’s the time that you’re least inclined to.  She’s got nothing to say I want to hear, you know?

Sheila: Exactly. I already know what they think. It’s stupid, I disagree with it, it’s ridiculous, et cetera. That’s actually the time when listening is most important, which is what sets master negotiators and really deeply effective leaders apart.

Denver: Mm-hmm. Let’s talk about difficult conversations, and maybe a good place to begin is actually having one because we are very skilled at kicking that can down the road, and this conversation, which has to happen, might be even better to have  tomorrow than today.

And I got to tell you, Sheila, in the nonprofit sector, this is more of an epidemic. We are a benign sector. We have a great mission. We’re nice. So this idea of conflict and difficult conversations, I mean, we avoid at all costs. What do we need to do to get ourselves to the starting line and then cross that starting line and actually have that conversation?

Sheila: Yeah. I’m so glad that you brought that up because number one, we’re all susceptible to the magical thinking that given that: they’re clearly wrong and I am right…

Denver: They’ll see it. Yeah. It’s like when you hurt your hip…

Sheila: Hopefully by tomorrow, they’ll come to their senses.

Denver: Yeah. It’ll feel better tomorrow. We believe in spontaneous recovery; it will take care of itself.

Sheila: Yeah. Hopefully, we never have to have this conversation, and they’ll just figure it out. And by the way, I’m from the Midwest… like we are really, really good at that.

Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sheila: The other thing that I think is important is what I would call an identity issue that you cited, like we’re in the nonprofit sector because we want to help people, because we’re committed to a mission. If we’re having conflict ourselves, there’s an… and I’m not the kind of person who upsets other people or embarrasses other people or puts someone else on the spot, or lets someone down.

Then difficult conversations, there’s more at stake than just: Did you remember to bring the potato salad? It’s really about who I am, and so there’s all kinds of incentives for us to avoid the conversation because we’re not supposed to be in conflict with each other, or hurting each other’s feelings, or letting each other down.

Denver: Mm-hmm. When you are preparing for a difficult conversation, are there any strategies or techniques that you follow to get yourself ready?

Sheila: Oh, for sure. Well, so one of the things that was most interesting for me to learn is that all difficult conversations actually have the same underlying structure. So part of what… to understand a difficult conversation, you have to look beyond what people are saying to each other, at what they’re really thinking and feeling, and often not saying to each other, maybe, especially in this sector.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah.

Sheila: So you have to look at what we call people’s internal voice. And the internal voice tends to be preoccupied with three kinds of things. The first is the identity thing. What does this whole thing say about me? That’s maybe the deepest level.

Even something as simple as having trouble saying no. Well, why is it hard for you to say no? It’s because you know you’re a team player. You’re helpful. You never abandoned someone who needed your help or…

Denver: That’s my brand.

Sheila: It’s your brand. Exactly.

Denver: That’s what people know me for. Yeah.

Sheila: Which is also why I can’t say no to any colleague or even a stranger asking for help, even though I know I am stretched too thin, and everyone is telling me I need to stop being so quote-unquote, nice. So even something that simple is really rooted in the story we tell about who we are or want to be.

The second thing that we’re trying to figure out– what to do with our feelings. So what do I do with these feelings of frustration or resentment or confusion or hurt or loneliness or feeling excluded, especially in a professional setting where we’re kind of not supposed to be having feelings?

Denver: Yes. Yeah.

Sheila: Just check them at the door when we come to work, and just stick to business…task-oriented, get things done. And at the end of the day, you can pick them up and take them home for your spouse to enjoy. So we’re trying to figure out what to do with all those feelings.

And then the third thing that we’re preoccupied with in our internal voice is our story about what happened and what is happening and should happen. So we call that the what-happened conversation that we’re having with ourselves. And that story actually itself has three pieces. I’m preoccupied with what I’m right about. Who’s right, and in particular what I’m right about, of course.

Denver: Yeah.

Sheila: Whose fault it is that we’re having this problem? And what’s motivating that other person? What are their intentions or motivations for why they’re being so stupid, or difficult, or off-base.

So you asked what I do to prepare. Despite the fact that I’ve been doing this work for 30 years, I still think all of those things instinctively in my own conflicts. So what do I do to prepare? The first negotiation is a negotiation with yourself, to negotiate your own internal voice from being preoccupied with what you’re right about and whose fault it is, et cetera, to being curious: why do we see this differently?

I don’t have to give up what I think I’m right about, but if I can move to, I wonder if I… it’s so clear I’m right, what is this about from their point of view that helps explain why we see it differently or what’s going on for them? What are we each contributing to the problem? And I don’t know their intentions, but I do know the impact that this is having, either on me or the organization or the work we’re trying to do. And that’s the concern I want to raise.

If I can make those shifts in my own mind and get a handle on what’s the identity thing going on for me here that I need to wrestle with a little bit, that’s going to help the feelings. So if I can make those shifts, then I’m actually in a much better place to initiate a conversation because the stakes are much lower.

It’s just like, “Hey, can we talk about what’s going on? Because I’m totally confused. And I’m not sure why– what is this about from your point of view?” And my only purpose is to understand why we see it differently in this first part of the conversation. That’s a much easier conversation to have.

Denver: Yeah. And I think the way you described the first part of all that, everything in it said stuck. Absolutely stuck. I think so much of it has to do with my identity because if I’m known for something, eh, that’s always nice to have a brand. But if I’m going to live by that, that means I’ll never grow.

That means I will be stuck with who I have been. And you have to sometimes let something go to grow. And same thing about my idea about this situation… It’s that letting go and being open that moves you forward. And it’s the opportunity cost that you don’t even know who that person could be if you stay stuck in: this is who I am.

Sheila: And it’s also why conflicts get stuck between us. So we get stuck because we don’t learn anything that we might have missed or is a different perspective. But it’s also that if we’re each still preoccupied with what we’re right about and whose fault it is, we’re unlikely to agree about whose fault it is…

Denver: Right.

Sheila: …or who’s right. And one of the most common patterns in these conversations is we might each be right, but what we think this conversation is about is different.

Denver: Ah, yeah. The Great distinction.

Sheila: Right?

Denver: Mm-hmm.

Sheila: Yeah. So you might be right that if we shift our focus, then we might actually need some different personnel. Because doing it the way we’ve done it has some cost, but at least we know what we’re doing. If we shift, we probably need to bring in some talent that we don’t currently have. You might be right about that.

I might also be right that if we’re going to get where we want to go, we don’t really have a choice. That if we just keep doing it the way we’re doing it, we’re not going to get there. So you’re right that it’s going to mean some hard decisions perhaps, but I might be right that it’s kind of the path we need to go down.

Denver: Yeah. Now we’re on different pages. I can see that. I’ve had a number of conversations in my lifetime when people have explained things to me from their point of view, and I said, “But that’s not the issue here!” You know?

Sheila: Yes. Oh my gosh, that’s such a great description.

Denver: Yeah. You know what I mean? Like you’re… Yeah. It’s completely different, you know?

Sheila: Yeah. What you think is the most important thing going on here, 90% of the time is just different than what I think is most important about this.

“The challenge for leaders is that as you become more senior and you have a bigger and bigger impact on everybody and everything, fewer and fewer people are willing to tell you about it. And when they do try to tell you about it, they’re often really indirect. And so leaders are often the last people to know what’s really going on or how people are feeling, and so leaders actually have to be much more skilled and proactive to invite direct conversation.”

Denver: Yeah, yeah. Okay. So I have difficult conversations with my colleagues, and I certainly have them with my direct reports. Do I need to think differently when I’m having a difficult conversation with my boss or somebody at the top of the food chain in my organization, or do I approach it pretty much the same way?

Sheila: Yeah. Well, so what would your instinctive answer to that be, Denver?

Denver: My instinctive answer would be to approach it the same way, but to smooth out the edges, to be a little bit more deferential. So, I mean, I think the essence of what I would say would be exactly the same thing that I would say with you or a direct report. But I would probably present it a little bit more carefully.

Sheila: Yes.

Denver: And a little bit more respectfully, but I would not change the thrust of the points that I would want to make or the things that I would want to listen to.

Sheila: Yeah. Because from your point of view, you have the same view about what’s important that you’re trying to raise. The content or the substance is the same. However, you’re a little bit less direct; you’re going to be a little bit more tactful.

Denver: Chicken, a little more chicken.

Sheila: Chicken. And you’re going to be on alert for signs to back off.

Denver: Yes, yes. Great point. Absolutely. Push it as far as you can go and say, no further.

Sheila: No further. Yeah, exactly. So here’s the challenge on both sides. The challenge for leaders is that as you become more senior and you have a bigger and bigger impact on everybody and everything, fewer and fewer people are willing to tell you about it.

Denver: That’s right.

Sheila: And when they do try to tell you about it, they’re often really indirect. And so leaders are often the last people to know what’s really going on or how people are feeling, and so leaders actually have to be much more skilled and proactive to invite direct conversation. So that’s the mess. And any reaction you have is going to warn people off quickly, and sometimes they’re not going to try more than once or twice.

Denver: Oh, no. No, no, no. I mean, also I think if a leader can go out of their way to try to build a relationship and ask you how your kids are, what you did this weekend, do anything that gets beyond the business, then that person might be a little bit more likely to tell you things that you need to hear, but wouldn’t if you were just a rank-and-file employee and just a number in that person’s eyes.

Sheila: Totally. So I think you’re right, and that’s something that I’ve started to remind myself of regularly, which is that feedback isn’t a meeting; feedback is a relationship. The other thing is that as a leader, and then we’ll come to being the subordinate actually here in a second, as a leader, having a practice of regularly asking for input, and one of the questions that’s helpful is, “What’s one thing?”

“What’s one thing that if we changed it about this weekly meeting, you think would make it more effective?  What’s one thing that you think the team is worried about that might not be so visible to me?”  You can weave that into how you operate week in and week out, and then you are sending consistent signals to the people around you that you’re interested in the input. On the flip side, now let’s talk about being the subordinate.

Denver: Yeah. I was just going to add there though, it was so interesting what you said about “one thing,” because I’m just listening, and if you were running the meeting and you said, “How could we make these meetings more effective?”  I would never say anything because it’s too broad and it’s too general.

But when you say, “Name one thing,”  it just, I don’t know, it invites me to make one point. It doesn’t seem as critical of the overall meeting you just ran. It’s just  like a tweak, but it would make me step up with a little bit more energy and alacrity and say something. So I just noted that as you said that.

Sheila: Yeah. And notice that I didn’t say, “Is there anything?”

Denver: Right. Right.

Sheila: Because then you might hesitate. But if I say, “Hey, what’s one thing,” I am telling you, if you’re a good employee, I’m assuming that you have a suggestion for me.

Denver: Yeah, yeah. Right.

Sheila: So I’m basically saying, I am hoping you have something to suggest, and then you can decide for yourself how risky you want to be. And you can test it out and see my reaction. And over time, you might become more honest if I welcome the input.

Should we talk about the flip side, being the subordinate?

Denver: Yeah, go ahead. Let’s go to the subordinate.

Sheila: So the trick about being the subordinate is trying to find ways to be more clear and direct because sometimes you’ll try to suggest or hint at something, and it totally seems to go over their head. And one way to do that is to be super clear about autonomy and decision making.

And so I think it’s really helpful if you can say, “Look, boss, at the end of the day, this is obviously your call. And I feel like it’s my responsibility to give you a sense of what I’m hearing, or the concerns that I think people would have, or something that I suspect is not as visible to you, and I’m hearing a lot about it, so I just want you to have the information.”

So you’re basically saying, I am not challenging your authority. I will get on board with whatever you decide. And here’s something I’m noticing that I want to make sure is visible so that you can factor it in. And I think that if you do that, you buy yourself space to be much more direct and much more clear.

Denver: Yeah. Makes sense. I think people never fully appreciate the parenthetical that precedes the critique, and it can make all the difference in the world when you set it up. Just the way you described there. They sometimes start after the “however,” and when you begin after the however, then it doesn’t seem like you’re on the team.

Seems like you’re a nay-sayer or you’re negative, whereas if you kind of set it up as: I believe in this place; however, to make it better. That’s good advice, good advice.

Well, what are some of the common mistakes that people make when receiving feedback? You indicated… I mean, we know what they… I know what they are sometimes. I’m pretty defensive. But what are some of the things that we need to keep in mind?

Sheila: Yeah. So let’s talk about being defensive and talk about our instinctive reactions when someone is giving us often unsolicited feedback.

Denver: Yeah.

Sheila: What are the kinds of reasons that you have not taken feedback, Denver? Like there are good reasons actually to reject it, but give me a few.

Denver: I think a lot of it could be who is giving me the feedback.

Sheila: Yeah. What’s wrong with them?

Denver: No, but I mean, if it’s somebody that I respect, somebody whose feedback is constructive, as opposed to destructive, and someone who doesn’t give too much feedback in the sense that they’re picking on everybody. You know what I mean? Those people who go around, and they see this is wrong, and this is wrong, and this is wrong.

If I fall into that, I probably would ignore it. I’m actually, I think, reasonably good at taking feedback because I tend to listen, and I’m always trying to improve. So I actually take it as well as…. I think I …reasonably well, although I’m sure that I’m deluding myself to a certain degree at the same time.

Sheila: Well, also, my guess is that you take it better now than you did 10 years ago, and maybe 10 years before that. Is that fair? So we know how far we’ve come.

Denver: No, you know, I think it depends. I think the older you get sometimes, the harder it is. I’ve had some bosses who’ve been challenging. I worked for Armand Hammer of Occidental, and I worked for Lee Iacocca.

And sometimes, when I’m in my 30s and people say to me, I’m in my 30s and I’ve got a long way to go, so you’re kind of more receptive to it. But sometimes when you get older and people start to give it to you, it’s like: What do they know? You know what I mean? And so, I don’t know.

I think there’s a maturation on my part that takes it better, but there’s also a sense that sometimes people giving it to me, really aren’t that equipped to give it as well, or I don’t seem to put up with it as well as I did maybe when I was 30 years old.

Sheila: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a… like, You know what? I’m too old for this.

Denver: Yeah, yeah. You know, I kind of like…

Sheila: I feel that, I feel that sometimes.

Denver: Yeah. And you try to keep that in check. You know what I mean?

Sheila: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Denver: There is that sense that: I don’t need to hear this.

Sheila: Okay. I love this part of it. So let me circle back to the generational thing, but I’ll answer your first question first, which is: What are the triggered reactions we have when people offer us feedback? And you named really part of each of the buckets. So what we found is that people have three kinds of triggered reactions… we as human beings, when people are offering us feedback.

The first is just what we call a truth trigger. Like, is this true or accurate or not? Like, did I say that? Or did that happen in the way that you’re describing? And also, do I think this is good advice or bad advice? Would that work? Or are there constraints in my context for why that? Of course I thought of that, but that wouldn’t work. So that’s all about evaluating the substance of the feedback itself.

And as you get older, it’s like, no, no, no. I’ve seen that; that wouldn’t work here. Like, I probably have seen it all. The second kind of trigger is what we call a relationship trigger. And just like you said, it’s all about who gave you the feedback. Do I like them? Do I think they’re credible? Do I think they have my best interests in mind? Do I trust them? Is this really for their benefit or mine? All of that.

 And relationship triggers are interesting because it’s why your best friend can tell you things that nobody else can. But it’s also why sometimes you can hear things from a stranger or an acquaintance differently than you hear them from your closest friends and colleagues.

Denver: You’re right.

Sheila: And sometimes someone a little further out can get through to you in a different way, partly just because you feel like, oh, they’re not… they don’t have all the baggage.

Denver: They don’t have an agenda.

Sheila:  Yeah. They don’t have an agenda. Exactly.

So the third kind of trigger is what we call an identity trigger. It’s all about the story we tell about who we are, and this is related to the difficult conversations stuff and the kind of person we want to be.

And so if we circle back to that question of generational feedback, what you’ve made me think of for the first time… so the story I would’ve told before this conversation is when I was in my 20s and 30s probably, any mistake I made was a big deal because I was still trying to figure out whether I was up to the job. So everything was kind of a crisis of confidence.

Denver: Magnified. Yeah. Yeah. Sure.

Sheila: Magnified. And I was more sensitive about things. Now that I’m older than that, we can leave that open-ended. When I make a mistake, it’s like, Oh, shoot, another mistake. And you have a longer arc, and it’s a little easier to negotiate yourself from that fixed mindset that Carol Dweck talks about of: I’m either smart or not smart, up to the job or not up to the job, to: a growth mindset of like, Well, shoot, this is, I guess, the next thing I need to work on.

Denver: Oh, that’s very true. And when you make a mistake on no body of work, it carries a grave weight. When you make a mistake on a long arc of work, it’s a blip. You know what I mean?

Sheila: Yeah. It’s a little easier to keep in perspective.

Denver: Yeah, it is. Mm-hmm.

Sheila: Maybe. Although it’s particularly disappointing, perhaps, that I thought I was beyond this. But you raised something different than that, which is also the I’ve-seen-it-all-at-this-point feeling, and I’m finding that really interesting because maybe it’s when I genuinely believe that I made a mistake. I let myself down. I’m disappointed, I… Oh, shoot. I probably owe somebody an apology or I need to fix something.Maybe that maps onto being older, being more balanced. 

But you’re describing a situation where actually maybe I substantively disagree with the feedback and I know better. Or I’ve heard it a million times, and it’s just not my biggest problem, so that’s not going to change.

Denver: Yep. Yep.

Sheila: Then I actually might be more impatient now that I’m older because it feels like, Look, I’ve seen every… you are acting like this is an obvious answer and I’m just too stupid to know. And let me just tell you, I’m not too stupid to know.

“So I actually think the generations are really important to be listening to each other because revolutions are pushed and fought by younger people and led by younger people who see the possibility for a better way.”

Denver: Yeah, they have a eureka moment. Sometimes there are people who when they discover something, they are almost arrogant in the sense: They think no one else could have possibly ever come across this. So they’re going to give it to you as if this is magic. I just learned this.

Sheila: It’s the big answer, the big insight.

Denver: And I’m so smart and I just found it out; you couldn’t possibly know it.

Sheila: Yeah. I hear that tenor, and the other tenor I hear is a little bit of a moralistic tenor of: this is the way it should be. And I have to say, trying to be empathetic with my own younger self in my 20s and early 30s, I think that I stepped into the working world and was at times shocked at what I found there because this is not the way this should work. This is shameful. What?

And I think I did have a sense of: this is wrong; this is not the way it should work. And a little bit of righteous indignation about it, that then you understand how things work. And actually it’s a little more complicated than that. And by the time you’re in your 40s, 50s and onward, you’re sort of like, Well, I get why things are more complicated than I thought they were upfront. It’s not so black and white.

And there are trade-offs, and I figured out how to navigate it. And so then the danger is, that makes us reinforce the status quo and not address things that really need addressing. So I actually think the generations are really important to be listening to each other because revolutions are pushed and fought by younger people, and led by younger people who see the possibility for a better way.

Denver: Let’s talk about younger people, Gen Z. Now I talk to a lot of organizations, Sheila, and they have their hands full, or at least they tell me. With Gen Z, they crave feedback, so they try to give them feedback, constant feedback, but they are very easily offended, or so they say.

So how do you navigate that? And what have you heard or learned or seen in terms of giving feedback to Gen Zs?

Sheila: Yeah. So I think that part of… I mean, I’m not saying anything that I think is new to anybody, but social media means that the whole world can give you feedback instantly, by likes and re-shares and et cetera and reactions. And most of those reactions are positive reactions that are built in.

There are also negative reactions, right? You can get some really ugly, horrible things playing themselves out on social media, but feedback lives in people’s lives in a different way, and often not in relationship. It’s strangers or it’s friends, but they’re across the country or across the world.

Denver: Yeah. They have potshots from everywhere at all times of the night.

Sheila: Yeah. And so I wonder whether that is partly why people who grew up with that kind of rhythm of instant thumbs up or being ignored, experience the being ignored as like something is gravely wrong here. If I’m not getting the feedback about whether I’m doing okay, or the appreciation in particular.

And so I think their expectations are higher in a way that I just didn’t have the same expectation because it had not been my experience. And there are three types of feedback, and they each have actually a different purpose. And we actually need all three in order to learn and grow. 

The first is appreciation, which is what we’ve been talking about so far, mostly. It just says like, I see you, I get you. All the blood, sweat and tears you’re putting into this job are noticed and valued by somebody. The second is coaching. How do you get better at it? What could we change? Where could I become more effective, efficient, whatever?  If it’s intended to make you better, it counts as coaching.

So that’s really the engine for individual learning and organizational learning. But the third is evaluation. Evaluation tells you how you are rating or ranking against some set of expectations. So those are performance reviews, grades, et cetera. And I think that part of what’s hard for all of us, but maybe it’s partly going on for Gen Zs, is they crave the appreciation and reassurance.

When they get coaching, like all of us, it can be really easy to hear coaching as evaluation. If there’s something I should do differently, then I must not be doing a good job overall. And by the way, I have all kinds of great coaching for my kids. And I don’t know why they keep hearing it as like they’re not stacking up.

Denver: Yeah.

Sheila: So I tell them, other people pay me a lot of money for this kind of coaching, guys.

“That is the dilemma for us, as humans, which is the negative is always going to be louder than the positive. And also, some of the hardest feedback for us to take, the most painful, is the feedback we have for ourselves. And so other people are just confirming what we secretly fear or believe.”

Denver: I think often you weigh the negative much more than the positive. So my daughter was a good pianist in high school, and she went on in college, and she would give a  performance, and people would come up and they’d give her roses, and she’d have 50 people saying this is the best thing they’ve ever heard.

And one person said, Hey, kind of flat tonight, kind of ordinary. And we would go home in the car, and all we did is talk about what that one person said, and did I notice that…. and I… So, Andrea, 50 people said you were fabulous. “They were just being nice.”  You know what I mean?

Sheila: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, she’s thinking: they’re all thinking this, but none of them want to tell me except the one brave person who told me.

Denver: Exactly. Exactly right. Yeah. And that’s why it lingers with us.

Sheila: That is the dilemma for us, as humans, which is the negative is always going to be louder than the positive. And also, some of the hardest feedback for us to take, the most painful, is the feedback we have for ourselves.

Denver: Oh, yeah.

Sheila: And so other people are just confirming what we secretly fear or believe. And the other thing is that as in the course of looking at identity triggers, we found some evidence that in terms of sensitivity to feedback, how upset do you get and how long does it take you to recover, individuals can vary by up to 3000%.

Denver: Ooh, yeah. Yeah.

Sheila: So that’s really hard if you’re highly sensitive, but it’s actually not easier sometimes to be under-sensitive, right? Part of the challenge there is you don’t even understand that people are trying to give you feedback because they’re being indirect about it, and they’re like, “Denver does it this way.” You’re like, “Oh, good for Denver. Who cares?”

Denver: Yeah. Good for him. That’s right. What do you want for lunch? You know what I mean?

Sheila: Yeah, exactly.

Denver: But I guess, you know…

Sheila: And then also even when you get that this is feedback and I should change something, it won’t stick in memory if you don’t have a very big emotional reaction to the conversation. So, yeah, you have to understand yourself.

Denver: So that’s a great insight, I think, in terms of giving feedback because when I was managing people, I was always trying to be very fair and evenhanded, and probably not as customized as I should be. And then over time, I realized it wasn’t really what I said, it was what they hear.

And that if you go with one-size-fits-all with feedback, you’re really missing the point because some people, as you say, you’ve got to really put it in their face three times and hammer it. And other people, you just know they’re going to be at that other spectrum of the 3000%, and they’re not going to be able… they’ll be paralyzed for two weeks. So you sort of have to tailor it, I guess. Is that right?

Sheila: I think that’s right. And sometimes leaders ask me like, How do I know exactly how to do it? And it’s like, you’re not supposed to just know; just ask them, like you’ve got someone who could tell you. So having a conversation about like, “Look, as we work together, I really would love your input and in particular, I’m working on a couple of things that I could use your perspective over time,” so you’re inviting it.

“And then help me understand what would be helpful to you when I have suggestions for you or observations. Is email okay? Do you want me to say something in the moment? Do you want me to wait?”

Denver: Oh, that’s good.

Sheila: “What’s good for you? And do you want to set up a meeting every other week just to check in?” And so you’re really co-constructing it.

Denver: Right. You collaborate and you empower them. That’s really totally different.

Sheila: And you’re setting a set of expectations between the two of you that it’s not that big a deal. Of course, of course, if I have a suggestion, I’ll send it your way, and I’ll do it the way that you actually prefer. And you’re fully able to revise your preferences.  “I told you to tell me in the moment, I need to change that. Just interrupting me in the middle of the meeting is not actually what I meant.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. What do you think about cultures of feedback? If you run into organizations, I know you have, where you have a feedback culture where everybody’s constantly giving it to people. I can tell you one in the nonprofit sector that I’ve always been impressed with and that’s up in Boston as well. It’s Year Up.

And it’s one of those types of organizations that if you’re not prepared to get feedback 24/7 from everybody around you, you might want to look someplace else to work. But I didn’t know what your thinking was on organizations that really have that in their DNA— just feedback, feedback, feedback all the time.

Sheila: Yeah, that’s a great question. What’s your observation about Year Up? Are they doing primarily coaching? Or is it constant evaluation or appreciation? What is it that they’re doing day in and day out?

Denver: Yeah, I would think it’s just basically coaching as much as anything because it isn’t critical feedback. It is the kind of feedback that we’re all trying to make each other better. And what it does there, it takes all the psychic energy that we spend in covering up for our deficiencies so nobody will know about our deficiencies, which you know, is about 70% of our energy, and it kind of gets it out there, and people observe.

I think one of the things that I noticed when I was up there and spoke to them about it, is that when you give feedback right from the get-go, you accept feedback a lot better. I’ve been in organizations where there’s been no feedback given to me for three, four months, and then people start giving me feedback and I’m like, Whoa! Am I in trouble here? Where did this come from?

Sheila: Where is this coming from?

Denver: Everything was good for a hundred days and now; it’s taken a different turn. So that would be my observation.

Sheila: Well, so that very much accords with my observations. Let’s start with the idea that finding an organization that feels like, yeah, we’ve got a pretty good culture of feedback that’s working well, is rare. So most organizations and teams within organizations are struggling with honest and candid feedback that feels supportive, to help each other be better. And the ones who are doing it well are doing it with expectations from the beginning.

The goal is so that we can do our very best work and have the biggest impact that we can in the ways that we want to impact the world. And it’s a mix of appreciation, like I’m noticing and supporting what you’re doing incredibly well and valuing it. And hey, could you do this a little bit differently because it’ll make it easier for us to do the next piece?

And it’s heard as supportive and collaborative as opposed to critical. And so I think weaving appreciation and coaching in year-round is what creates that supportive, collaborative pursuit of excellence culture.

Denver: Yeah. Framing is really the critical way to put it out there.

Sheila: I think that’s right.

Denver: Finally, Sheila, because I better say, finally, Sheila, or we’ll be talking all day about this, which I can…

Sheila: I know, we could talk all day.

Denver: …easily do. How do you think your work is evolving? I know you’re coming out with your third edition of Difficult Conversations this coming August. But tell us a little bit about how it’s evolved. And particularly over these last three years, with all the changes that have occurred, what do you see occurring?

Sheila: Yeah, so I think… so the third edition of Difficult Conversations is coming out in August, and part of what we did is really rework some pieces. The framework doesn’t change, but the examples have changed. I think they’re more inclusive. We’ve rewritten the answers to the 10 questions people ask, including there are two about power.

And so I think for me personally, what I have been thinking most about over the last few years is really about the ways in which systemic influences, what both biases and decision making and access and all of that, are the sort of stage on which we are operating, and what do we need to do to change those systems.

And how does hierarchy affect how direct or indirect we’re going to be with each other, or how other people are going to hear what I’m going to do. I think people, with what these days is tossed around as power, which means you have a lot of decision making and resources, et cetera, at your disposal, in part, it doesn’t feel like power to those people. It just feels like enormous and sometimes overwhelming responsibility.

And so the pandemic has put, has quintupled the workload of people in leadership in a way that means that they’re burnt out and stressed out, et cetera, and less aware of the ways in which all of their actions impact everybody else. And then they feel beleaguered because other people are starting to say, “Hey, this actually isn’t okay.”

Denver: Yeah.

Sheila: And we need each other to figure that out. And I think that’s one of the conversations that is starting to happen in many organizations, which is not easy, because it takes a lot of empathy from all corners for each other.

Denver: Well, a lot of third editions come out and just tweak a little bit. That is really a real addition, and I urge listeners to get Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. It will be out in August. And Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, that is a timeless piece. All your books are timeless.

I want to thank you so much for being here today, Sheila. It was such a delight to have you on the program.

Sheila: Thank you so much for having me. What fun. And Denver, I really appreciate what you are doing for the organizations and listeners in your orbit because I think they are underserved in terms of the world giving back support and help to them for all of the positive impacts that they have in our world.

Denver: Well, thank you for that, and that’s why you are such a valuable addition because I think they will take this, and they will embrace this. So really thanks for your time and being here today.

Sheila: You bet. Have a good one.

Denver: You, too.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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