Communications consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen share how to say ‘no’ to feedback.
In our line of work, we spend a lot of time celebrating the value of feedback for both individuals and organizations. Feedback helps us all to learn and improve. When employees receive feedback graciously, they are seen as more competent and flexible, and the organization benefits from enhanced skills and relationships.
It all seems clear-cut. Until, that is, you place this pro-feedback stance into the context of real people, with real jobs, in real organizations, surrounded by real colleagues. The abstract advice to “take feedback” gets complicated quickly. “What about bad or wrong advice? What if I’m already at maximum capacity for personal change? What if I know they’re just giving me this feedback to tick the boxes?”
Are there times when a person is better off not taking feedback? Of course. The question then becomes, how? Can you turn down feedback at work without it damaging your reputation, relationships and job security?
Three kinds of coaching
In our book Thanks for the Feedback, we observe that, broadly, there are three kinds of feedback. They are: appreciation – “thank you for your efforts”; evaluation – “here is where you stand compared to others”; and coaching – “here’s what you could change to improve.” We’re going to focus here on coaching feedback, because coaching asks something of us: we take it or dismiss it, we change or we don’t.
There are three kinds of coaching. Understanding which kind you are getting is the first step in engaging skillfully with the feedback.
This is the kind of feedback most of us think of when we talk about coaching: if I am a feedback giver, my goal with improvement coaching is to help you get better at something. “Here’s what you are doing that is getting in your way, and here’s what you could do that would help you get better at it.”
My goal in giving you relationship coaching is to make you aware of how your behavior affects me and our relationship. For example: “I worry that when you introduce me to clients as your ‘young colleague’, the client will hear that as a sign that I’m inexperienced or unqualified.” With relationship coaching, I want you to change, not because it will be better for you, but because it will be better for me, and for our relationship.
In a hierarchical organization, you will sometimes be on the receiving end of a command: “Do this or else.” What makes something a command is partly a function of the intention of the giver – “I’m the boss, and I’m telling you what to do, so do it” – and partly a function of the “or else” element – “if you don’t do this, you won’t be staffed on
You can say ‘no’ to all three kinds of coaching. But if feedback is a ‘gift’, it is true that some gifts are easier to return than others.
Saying no to command coaching is the hardest. If I give you command coaching, and by actions or words, you reject it, I am left to think one or several of the following: you are insubordinate; you don’t care about succeeding; you are selfish; you are not a good communicator; you aren’t a good match with this organization.
Is it possible to reject command coaching without creating these impressions? To a degree, yes. The key is to recognize that you can have a conversation and problem-solve, while at the same time respecting the fact that your boss is the ultimate decision-maker. You aren’t saying, “You’re the boss, so ‘yes’.” Nor are you saying, “I don’t care that you are the boss, ‘no’.”
You are instead saying, “You’re the boss. This is your decision to make and I’ll respect that decision. And, let’s problem-solve and see if we can find ways to move forward that work as well as possible for both of us.”
So when your boss says, “From now on, we’re all going to work from the office and not from home,” instead of giving a blunt yes or no, you could say: “I will of course do what you decide. I’d like to understand more about your thinking on that, what interests you are hoping to meet, and to discuss whether there may be legitimate reasons for sometimes working from home that will not create bad precedents or undue administrative burdens.” You are respecting your boss’s authority, while still inviting problem-solving.
It won’t always go your way, but often, you can meet some of your more important interests – and you can do it without incurring costs to your reputation or relationships.
Declining feedback that is given in an attempt to improve a relationship can be tricky. The first step is to determine whether a piece of coaching is relationship coaching or improvement coaching, and that’s not always easy.
Continuing on our earlier theme, imagine that a colleague – not a boss but someone lateral to you, or perhaps even a subordinate – offers you this bit of coaching: “Being in the office more, rather than working from home, will make you better at your job.” This is framed as improvement coaching, and as such, is easily dismissed: “Hey, I work far more efficiently from home, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
But what if your colleague isn’t intending to give you advice for your sake, but for hers? Let’s imagine that your colleague actually wants you in the office because she periodically needs you to sign checks to pay the contractors she’s hired. Your uncertain whereabouts creates stress for her, and sending out emails hunting you down takes time and emotional energy.
That moves the discussion into the realm of relationship coaching, which at its heart contains information about the impact your behavior is having on the other person. It boils down to this: “When you do x, it has y impact on me. Please don’t do x (or please do z).” When you receive relationship coaching, it’s crucial to seek to clarify the impact your behavior is having: “Tell me more about how my unpredictability affects you. How often do you write checks and what happens when you’re waiting for me to come in and aren’t sure when that will be?” Communicate to the other person that you care about this impact, and then, as with command coaching, negotiate.
If you eventually choose to say no to the feedback, how you do it makes all the difference. “Hey, I work far more efficiently at home, so that’s what I’ll continue to do” fails to acknowledge that you understand or care about the other person’s concerns. Better to say: “Now that we’ve discussed it, I understand that my work patterns are causing extra work and anxiety for you. Here are the costs to me of coming in more regularly. Let’s consider whether there are ways to reduce some of the work and anxiety on your end that don’t cost me as much in lost time and productivity.”
Just as you can dis-aggregate authority from problem-solving when given command coaching, with relationship coaching, you can dis-aggregate care for the impacts of your actions on others from problem-solving.
The easiest kind of feedback to dismiss is improvement coaching. Improvement coaching is about me and for me, so it stands to reason that I am in the best position to know whether it will actually help me. But while improvement coaching is mostly about me, it is rarely only about me. The person giving the coaching has an ego interest in knowing that their coaching is respected. No matter how much they stress that the feedback is just for my benefit, they are watching to see what I do with it. If I don’t take it, they might also conclude that I’m simply not interested in improvement. So, though easier to navigate, setting aside improvement coaching is not without its challenges.
Let’s return to our scenario about working from home. In our first iteration, a boss commands you to come in; in our second, a colleague wants you to come in mostly for her benefit. In this third iteration, let’s assume a mentor gives you genuine improvement coaching, with the sole purpose of helping you with your career: “I know it’s more efficient to work from home. At the same time, getting to really know the head people here is going to help you in your career. So, whether it’s efficient or not, you should plan on coming in a couple of days a week.”
Before deciding whether to take this coaching, you should work to understand it and to make sure the person giving the advice knows you understand it. Start with inquiry. Ask about how coming into the office helped your mentor, and how he imagines it will help you.
Once you’ve made a decision, circle back and share it with your mentor. Share not just your conclusion (“I’m not coming in”), but also your reasoning. Explain your thinking about what you imagine you’d gain by coming in and how you see the costs.
Make clear that you have carefully weighed the decision: “When you started here four years ago, the organization was really small and the founders made all the decisions about advancement. It’s my understanding that now, decisions about my career are made not by the founders but by the VP for production, and I know him really well. I live one town over, and he and I have lunch at least once a week. While coming in to the office might help me in other ways, in terms of career advancement, I’m better off devoting my time to developing content rather than commuting.”
Trust in transparency
In all of these conversations, transparency is your ally. You don’t have to guess whether a comment is a command or a suggestion, or whether it’s for your sake or for the benefit of the feedback giver. You can ask. If you’re unsure about what sort of conversations your work culture supports, you can ask about that too: “We’re being told to work at the office from now on. If we have thoughts or questions about that, what’s a respectful way to raise those?”
Turning down feedback is rarely easy, but in many situations, with skill, it’s possible to do so without incurring undue costs. Determine which kind of coaching you are getting and inquire into the other person’s interests. Once you’ve made a decision, share your conclusions, and also the reasoning that led you to your conclusion. You can say no, but how you say it matters.
— Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen are founders of Triad Consulting Group, lecturers at Harvard Law School, and the authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.