What a new book about receiving feedback reveals about language, meaning and the human conditionby Josephine Livingstone / April 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Italo Calvino was prone to falling in love with the sound of English words. As with all types of love, he sometimes didn’t realise that he’d fallen for the wrong thing until it was too late. Fortunately, his translator, William Weaver, was there to save Calvino from himself. Some years ago Weaver gave an interview to the Paris Review which included a lovely reminiscence about Calvino’s lexical crushes:
“At one point he fell madly in love with the word feedback, and he didn’t realise that in America feedback is like closure or spinning out of control, something you hear constantly on television. It’s jargon and cliché, and you can’t use it anymore.”
Not merely jargon: “dead to literature,” as Weaver went on to explain. Still, Calvino kept putting it back in and Weaver kept taking it back out, back and forth. In the end, the translator won: “Finally the last proofs came, and I took it out definitively. And I’m sorry to say he died before he had the book in his hands, so he never knew that I’d done this to him.”
If only Italo Calvino had lived long enough to see the publication of Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When it is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and, Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood). I doubt that there exists a book that employs the word more times.
Stone and Heen teach a negotiation class at Harvard Law School and cofounded something called the Triad Consulting Group, which sounds like an accessory to Cantonese organised crime but is sadly just a “global corporate education and communication consulting firm.” Stone and Heen’s new book is business-flavoured self-help. It teaches you how to be a better, happier, more efficient person in the workplace and in life, by receiving feedback better.
On their joint website, Stone and Heen have written a little bit about each other. Doug notes that Sheila was named a Lecturer on Law at Harvard at age 26. “From her point of view, it took forever,” he says. Sheila says the following about Doug:
- “He is the only member of the Harvard Law School faculty ever recruited to submit writing samples to write for Beavis and Butthead before it debuted on MTV. He declined.”
- “Although he is now among the most popular teachers at Harvard Law School, Doug went through all three years at HLS as a student without ever speaking in class. He was too shy.”
A talented young man mutely declines the opportunity to write for Beavis and Butthead, but eventually attains popularity. At this point in my research I was already close to tears.
There is more, however:
- “Doug can play a concert-worthy piano rendition of “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart. If he plays it at a party, he has to immediately leave before he is asked to play anything else, because it is literally the only song he can play.”
Remember this note of terrible pathos—it is less the book’s leitmotif than a deafening chord resounding through every sentence.
This is not a book about givingadvice, but receivingit. We receive feedback all the time—from our bosses, from our colleagues, from our parents and family and friends. Heen and Stone are right that we cause ourselves untold grief by simply hearing feedback wrong. Sometimes we misinterpret, blinded by tone or context. Sometimes we interpret correctly but cannot control our feelings. Feedback, in its broadest sense, is the very stuff of human relationships. Perhaps Calvino was right to see poetry in it.
And oh, what poetry is here! Thanks for the Feedback is a book of violent and strange language. The very table of contentsassails the reader with disjunctive, all-caps commands, which sound like threats:
“RIDE OUT THE J CURVE”
“COACH YOUR COACH”
“INVITE THEM IN”
The bookis full of corporate-speak like “DON’T SWITCHTRACK,” but, like that much-abused phrase “health and safety,” there is sometimes a good idea lurking behind the nonsense. Take “switchtracking” itself. This is when person A gives person B some negative feedback, then person B, feeling hurt, delivers some unrelated, negative retort. Heen and Stone give the example of Miriam:
“When her husband, Sam, accuses her of being aloof, she feels unappreciated and hurt, and so she switchtracks: ‘Do you have any idea what I went through just to get us to that bar mitzvah? I rearranged Mom’s dialysis and got Matilda bathed and dressed so she’d look presentable at the party for your nephew, the one whose name you can’t even remember.’”
Frankly, Miriam’s life sounds stressful and I’m on her side. But the point is that she should have responded to the feedback at hand, instead of getting triggered.
The chief “triggers” are three: Truth Triggers, when the substance of the feedback feels wrong to the recipient of the feedback; Relationship Triggers, when the problem is the person giving that feedback; and Identity Triggers, when the problem is you—the feedback has destabilised your sense of self. When we hear tough, triggering feedback, say Heen and Stone, we “feel lousy, the world looks darker, and our usual communication skills slip just out of reach… so we defend, attack, or withdraw in defeat.” As a result, like defective machinery, we do foolish things like switchtracking.
The Miriam episode is characteristic of the book; every strategy and paradigm is framed by a “real-life” example. When Stone and Heen explain that feedback is always based on a genuine perception (rather than invented grievance) on the part of the advice-giver, they give the following bewildering poem of examples:
“Your boss hears you tell a co-worker that you’re too busy to help.”
“Your tennis partner notices that you are no longer able to remember the score.”
“Your report did not distinguish between online and brick-and-mortar sales.”
“You were quiet at dinner, until you barked at the kids.”
This kind of writing gives the strong impression that we are tragically malfunctioning robots. You repeat errors, obliviously, sadly, but you are not sufficiently well-engineered to see why or how. The somewhat paradoxically titled chapter “SEE YOUR BLIND SPOTS” contains a sub-section titled “YOUR LEAKY FACE.” The idea here is that you can’t see your own face (but you can see your own blind spots, which surely are inside your own eyes?). Thus, “A decent pair of eyestalks would help…with eyestalks we’d get a lot of insight into why people react to use the way they do.” If only!
This kind of eyestalk-sprouting surrealism is perhaps the book’s greatest pleasure. Heen and Stone call to mind writers such as Lydia Davis and Donald Barthelme in their uncanny mixture of the mundane and the strange. Behold “The Rabbit Hole of Intentions,” which is something you fall down when you try to guess why somebody is giving you feedback:
You want to hurt me.
You’re projecting your own issues onto me.
You want to show me who’s boss.
You’re playing favorites.
You’re threatened by me.
You have no filter and can’t stop blurting out stupid things.
You’re just jealous.
You’re building a case against me.
You’re being nice, but not honest.
You’re trying to control me.
You’re more than a little nuts.
More than a little nuts is how I felt after reading this. Stone and Heen give you ways to second guess everything going on in your own head, but specifically prohibit you from second guessing other things. The result is that you never want to have another conversation again.
Some of the book’s well-meaning “humanising” touches misfire. “Once you are aware of relationship triggers and switchtrack conversations, you will see them everywhere,” say Stone and Heen. “Like a mouse in a maze, you’ll start noticing just how many places feedback conversations can split into two and sometimes three topics at once.” I don’t want to identify with a mouse in a maze. Being a mouse in a maze suggests that I am not only bereft of autonomy but being experimented upon. This is a simile which makes me anxious. I hate mazes.
It should be said that this book might be consoling and helpful if you find it hard to receive feedback without getting upset or without continuing on obliviously. It probably isn’t enough to save a marriage, or your relationship with your mother, but those are problems that no book alone could solve. And for readers with less at stake, Thanks for the Feedback is an unbeatable romp. No other book would open a section like this:
“Tie Yourself to the Mast”
“Here’s a thought: What if the choice was “go low carb, or choose the muffin and donate $500 to the American Nazi party”? Well, that sure changes the siren song of the muffin, right?”
It sure does.
Poignant absurdity of this kind is enjoying a great renaissance at present. It has found its most sublime expression in the much-discussed, and now defunct, twitter account @Horse_ebooks, whose 18,800 tweets combined pure spam (“(213) 444 0102”, “Learn to Trade Markets ?http://tinyurl.com/ng5c4l7”) with profound truths: “You re not alone in your passion for tomatoes!”
The joy of @Horse_ebooks was its masterful combination of spambot nonsense and lightning bolts of poetic truth. Its prose voice was that of a drone with an undeveloped heart; a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner crying “only connect!” Sometimes it even seemed as though the blind, aleatory thrashing of a gibberish-machine was speaking more truthfully about the human condition than its manufacturers could.
How so? This has something important to do with irony, authorial voice and intention. The social aspect of the internet means that every lump of information is infinitely worked and re-worked through others’ interpretations. The principle of comment relies on a triangulated relationship between the text, the person who wrote it, and the reader. But automatedtext escapes this loop. Even if @Horse_ebooks seemed to have commercial premises, they were sweetly obvious. The automation of text means that the reader and the text can have their own, private relationship. If the entity that is making profound statements is entirely automated, then there is no need to second guess their true meanings and intentions: there is no possibility that the robot tweeter is being ironic or making fun of your lonely passion for tomatoes.
That private relationship can give rise to real loveliness—for instance, these tweets from @Horse_ebooks:
- “I love to document everything. I want to prove everything. I want to systematize”
- “Everyone s negative comments actually paved the way for my bodybuilding success.”
- “keeping keeping keeping keeping keeping keeping keeping keeps coming back, each one saying to himself, when the moment keeps. I listened.”
When it emerged that @Horse_ebooks was not automatically generated by a computer program but written by a human being (a human being who worked at BuzzFeed), the private relationship between reader and tweet was violated. People got really quite upset. But thinking about @Horse_ebooks’ work makes it clear why Thanks for the Feedback is beautiful. Both are sad, but silly; hinting at human tragedies of the highest sort—loneliness, confusion, powerlessness—while telling us something about how meaning works in the strange new world of automated text.
There can be deep beauty in repetition. When that beauty is not meant, in the sense that there’s no sentience behind the sentiments, then new ways of understanding language emerge, just as new qualities to the way beauty works in visual art emerged when it became possible to buy a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa for a few pennies. The endless proliferation of ad-speak by internet spambots has accelerated the pace at which jargon spreads and words become clichés. The internet has become a junkyard of human language: business jargon is a broken edifice. We just want to play among its ruins. This is poetry in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Weaver said that Calvino’s love for “feedback”could never be permitted because “feedback is like closure or spinning out of control,” a cliché. But when clichés of this sort are decontextualised and their new powerlessness highlighted, as in the @Horse_ebooks account or when one reads Thanks for the Feedback not as an instruction manual but as a portrait of our age, these words are redeemed.. Calvino was right, after all.
For all of its delights, in the end, Thanks for the Feedback presents an ambivalent but generally glum worldview. It is hard to submit to the management of others. The will to rebel is very difficult to overcome. But overcome it we must, to make money and to stop Sam divorcing us and to quietly keep on with our lives, such as they are. Dialysis must be rescheduled; eyestalks imagined. We will keep perpetuating the norms of our terrible, surreal workplace environments, such as they are: but perhaps very slightly more efficiently. As the section of Thanks for the Feedback “CULTIVATE A GROWTH IDENTITY” reassures us—in a way that we can now see to be beautiful in the characteristic mode of our age—“The sadness and the balance. That’s not unusual.”
Thanks for the Feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well
by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (Portfolio Penguin, £14.99)