Tag Archives: feedback

What To Do When Someone Says You're Not Listening

In work life from time to time you may be accused of not listening. It may not be fair. You may not like it. But you’d be shocked how many people completely flub their reaction when the boss, a coworker, or a customer says, “you’re not listening.”

Here’s my three-part formula for what to do when someone says you’re not listening.

  • Shut up
  • Active listen
  • Keep and use a mental ledger going forward

Shut Up, Immediately

If someone says you’re not listening the first thing to do is immediately begin the demonstration that you can. Acceptable responses:

  • “OK”
  • “I understand”
  • “Tell me more”

Unacceptable, yet nevertheless incredibly common, responses:

  • Keep talking, simply ignoring the comment. Recall the First Rule of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging.
  • Get defensive. “Of course, I’m listening to you.” “Most people tell me I’m a great listener.” “I pride myself on my listening skills.” Recall Kellblog’s Second Rule of Feedback: defensiveness kills communications.
  • Make pedantic distinctions between listening and hearing. “I’m listening to you, but perhaps I’m not hearing you.” “I’m hearing you just fine — my ears work perfectly — I just don’t agree with you.”

Active Listen

The second part of your listening demonstration is to use active listening. This boils down to showing that you’re listening and confirming understanding using these techniques:

  • Focus on the speaker. Look at him/her. Make eye contact. Don’t engage in any common distractions like looking at your phone or screen.
  • Take notes, even if you have an amazing memory and don’t need them. Taking notes shows that you are engaged and listening.
  • Don’t interrupt. If the speaker says something you disagree with, write it down. I put it in triangle I’ve pre-marked at the bottom of the page. Doing this gives you a third option other than conceding the point or interrupting to dispute it. I’m amazed by how infrequently I come back to these points that, in the heated moment, seemed worthy of interrupting someone.
  • Confirm back. “OK Charlie, I want to make sure I understood what you just said. I’m hearing that you [1] tried to set up the review meeting on Monday, [2] that everyone initially indicated they could come, and [3] that … Did I get that right?”

Keep and Use a Mental Ledger

The first two steps help eliminate basic communication problems. But say it’s deeper. You’re communicating just fine, you just happen to disagree with a lot of the feedback. Examples:

  • You disagree with almost every piece of directive feedback a board member gives you — and he gives you about ten pieces of it [1] every board meeting [2] [3].
  • You are a consultant and you disagree with most of the feedback your client gives you on a draft survey that you’re running.
  • You are a manager and you disagree with most of the messaging in a presentation one of your subordinates is creating.

These are not easy situations and nobody wants to lose on every point, so you need to step back and make a mental ledger of credits (I took your input) and debits (I did not), so you can both ensure you’re somewhat balanced and to get a big picture sense of the score. This will prepare for you for a “you never listen to anything I say” attack, because you have kept some tally of accepts and rejects.

“Well, in fact, I took about 40% of your ideas and rejected about 60% and while I know that might not feel good, it’s simply not true that ‘I never listen to anything you say.’ Now, let’s go discuss the important points on the merits.” [4]

You may think I’m reducing feedback to game theory, and I suppose I am. The three key points are:

  • People do keep some mental tally and it’s almost always biased, so why not actually keep some rough score to inform the conversation.
  • You must keep the power balance in mind when playing the feedback/input game. If you’re a consultant servicing a customer, you want the customer winning. If you’re a manager challenging a senior vice president, you should be hoping to score a few points.
  • More than anything it says choose your battles, keeping the power balance in mind when you do so.

The last point leads to a corollary I love: when you are in the position of inferior power you should never argue about small matters. Why? Because the mental tally is, in my opinion, unweighted, so the smart way to get what you want and let the person with superior power win, is to let them win on issue-count while you win on importance-weighting. Put differently, if it’s a small matter it definitionally isn’t that important, so so why take a mental debit to win? Concede, instead.

Finally, when responding to input, it’s always useful to start not with the numerical tally [5] but with a summary. “Well, Sarah, I agreed with your on these points and I disagreed with you on those.” That starts the conversation in a balanced place which should keep everyone most open for feedback.

# # #

[1] Directive feedback = “You guys should do X.”

[2] The best solution here, if relationship allows, is to ask the board member not to give directive feedback. However, that’s not always possible.

[3] I have a theory that board members should never give CEOs directive feedback. Here’s the proof. Case 1: the CEO wants to do the idea, in which case it will be done anyway. Case 2: the CEO doesn’t want to do the idea and does it only because they were so directed. Thus the only result from directive feedback is to make CEOs do ideas they don’t want to do, which is a terrible practice. QED.

[4] For spouses I recommend an entirely different methodology. Say, “you’re right.” Repeat as necessary.

[5] Which you can keep in your pocket for later if challenged.

The Three Golden Rules of Feedback

I was speaking to my executive coach the other day and we had a great conversation about feedback.  I’m going to adapt what she said into some pithy advice for managers on how to give feedback.

Here are the three golden rules of feedback:

  • It has to be honest
  • It has to be kind
  • It has to be timely

Honest Feedback
When you give someone feedback it has to be authentic.  It has to be what you really feel.  It can’t be candy coated.  It has to be what you honestly feel about the situation, tempered by the humility that you may not necessary be “right” — or that right and wrong may not even have meaning in a given situation.

Example:  “I felt disrespected when you arrived late at my meeting.”

I provided a concrete situation in which something happened; I am not generalizing or pattern-matching.  I indicated a specific behavior that I observed.  I described the impact on me — how I felt about it (which is incontrovertible) — without trying to speculate why you did it or what you intended.

This form of feedback is called situation-behavior-impact, and it’s a great template for giving honest feedback.

It’s quite hard to do and (given how things went when I was trained) comes naturally to few people.  While I would never claim to be a great SBI feedback-giver, I nevertheless continue to aspire to be one — because it does work.

Always be honest.

Kind Feedback
While not something I’m necessarily known for, I love my coach’s second rule of feedback.  If you’re like me, the honest part of feedback isn’t hard.  Example:

That’s the worst proposal I’ve ever seen.  You never said what you wanted to do, what it would cost, or why we should do it.  Other than omitting the three key elements of a proposal it was great.

Or, as Larry Ellison was reputed to have often said:  “that’s the stupidest f**king idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” sometimes rather amazingly followed by, “say it again!”  (The latter addition being a tell-tale that you were likely out of the building by 5 PM.)

While “honest” comes naturally to me, I really like the “kind” principle.  I stand behind the vast majority of feedback I’ve given over the years.  It’s always been honest and usually been accurate.  I’ve been unafraid to put hard issues on the table that other managers were afraid to confront.  I am proud that I have helped people identify and eliminate weaknesses that would have otherwise limited them and/or developed strengths that helped propel them.

But I am equally certain that I could almost always have found a better way of expressing my feedback had I known about and applied the kind principle.

Being kind forces the feedback giver to focus not just on the validity of his/her feedback, but on the appropriate timing and expression of it.  It provides a second, important test — particularly for well-intentioned managers too blunt for their own good.

To be clear, being kind doesn’t mean avoiding hard issues or candy-coating conversations.  It does mean that you should challenge yourself, even during very difficult conversations, to find a way to communicate such that the other person leaves feeling respected and with their dignity intact.

Even the ultimate hard conversation — terminating someone — can be conducted in a way that leaves feeling respected as a person and with their dignity intact.  While many fearful mangers bungle termination into a personal tear-down, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Before a comment-outcry develops, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the king of kind feedback.  I am, however, going to work on it for three reasons:

  • It’s nicer.  I’d like people to want to work for me because of my feedback — not despite it.
  • It’s a challenge, that will make me a better manager.
  • It’s more effective.  I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people spend more time reacting to how I said something than I what I said.

You can generate big distractions and waste hours by giving feedback without adequate consideration for its impact on the recipient.  It’s far more effective to think up front for 30 minutes about both what to say and how to say it than to hastily offer feedback only to spend hours in damage control afterwards, simply working your way back to zero on the relationship — with most of the actual feedback long-forgotten in the process.  It happens.  I’ve been there.

Always be kind.  (Hey, I’m working on it.)

Timely Feedback
The last rule is that feedback needs to be timely.  Feedback, like sushi, does not get better with age.

Timeliness matters for several reasons:

  • Both sides are in a better position to discuss recent events than ancient history.  Memories fade and the best feedback is usually quite specific.
  • Letting feedback get old tends to bottle up anger or dissatisfaction on the part of the giver.  The manager might start treating someone differently — e.g., being curt, assigning core projects to others — without them having any understanding of what’s going on.
  • Delaying feedback often leads to “pattern matching,” where instead of discussing specific situations (e.g., when you were late to my staff meeting on Tuesday) the giver generalizes to patterns (e.g., you are always late to my staff meetings) which wrecks the SBI process and results in factual disputes (e.g., no I’m not) instead of impact discussions (e.g., it made me feel disrespected).

Being timely doesn’t mean delivering a real-time stream of constant criticism.  (I’ve tried that too and it doesn’t work!)  Nor does it mean confronting hot issues immediately when tempers may still be high.  But it does mean giving feedback within a timeframe when memories are still fresh and when the recipient doesn’t feel like “why did you wait so long to tell me this?”

Finally, if you’re going to start giving periodic constructive feedback you better get ready to give a lot more positive feedback if you want to preserve the overall quality of the relationship.  Research shows that the ideal ratio of praise to criticism is 5 to 1.  This applies not only at work, but also at home —lasting marriages have a 5 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism while marriages ending in divorce have a 0.7 to 1 ratio.

I better go buy some flowers on the way home tonight.  I love you guys.

Always be timely.