This column will change your life: the perils of feedback

It's appropriate that we use the same word, "feedback", to mean a) the annual performance review at work and b) that wince-inducing howl made by amplifiers when microphones get too close. Feedback of the interpersonal kind is a minefield of misunderstandings and emotional conflict. In a 2011 survey, one in four people said they hated the annual review more than anything else in their jobs; 55% thought theirs was unfair or inaccurate.

To make matters worse, we teach bosses heinous claptrap such as the "sandwich technique" – praise, then criticise, then praise – which confuses the recipient and makes the feedback-giver sound shifty. (Were those compliments real, or just delivery mechanisms for the fault-finding in the middle?) In romance and friendship, feedback's more fraught still. Even if you're right about the problem I've got, I don't necessarily want to hear it from you: it might make me anxious you're going to leave me, or fuel my conviction that you're always picking holes, and anyway, what about all your failings? As I said: a minefield. Listening to high-pitched howling would be a pleasure by comparison.

At the root of this – according to Thanks For The Feedback, a new book by two Harvard law professors, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen – is one internal tension we all share. We want to feel we're learning and improving, but we also want to be appreciated for who we are. So even when feedback's delivered perfectly, we're primed to react badly, because both needs can't be met at once.

When delivered imperfectly, as it usually is, it's a nightmare. Too many managers muddle three types of feedback, write Stone and Heen: appreciation (praise for accomplishments), coaching (tips for improvement) and evaluation (rating someone's performance, especially relative to others). At the least, they argue, companies using formal reviews should separate those three into different sessions. And outside the office, don't be surprised if a friend or lover gets shirty when you respond with coaching – "Here's how you can solve your problem!" – when all she or he wanted was appreciation, or a shoulder to cry on.

But the real shift we need to make, they say, is from focusing on how feedback's delivered to how it's received: we all need to get better at hearing feedback. That doesn't entail always accepting it; indeed, part of being a good receiver of feedback is knowing when to conclude that your boss or partner is so critical that it's time to walk away. (It's a common misconception, when people disagree, that their disagreement must be resolved. But as Stone and Heen put it, if someone you're breaking up with gives the feedback "that you are a terrible person, the two of you don't need to reach consensus on this point".)

What it does entail is abandoning the kneejerk response of "wrong-spotting" – railing against feedback you consider unfair – and instead trying to figure out why the difference of viewpoint has arisen. At work, it means demanding clarity: is this an evaluation session, coaching, or what? Are you making suggestions or issuing commands? The book asks a question worth memorising: "What's the one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way?" For feedback-givers, meanwhile, it's simple. Tell me what I did well, tell me what I should do differently, and don't confuse the two. If I wanted a sandwich, I'd go to the office canteen.

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