Douglas Stone is a Managing Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches negotiation. Through Triad, he consults to a wide range of organizations, including Fidelity, Honda, HP, IBM, Merck, Microsoft, Shell, the Nature Conservancy, and the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
Doug has also taught and mediated around the world. He has worked with mediators and journalists in South Africa, Greek and Turkish political and community leaders in Cyprus, doctors and executives at the World Health Organization, and diplomats at the former Organization of African Unity in Ethiopia.
Doug is co-author, along with Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin, 2000), a New York Times Business Bestseller. His new book is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.
Douglas Stone: So the ability to turn down feedback and create boundaries is crucial to receiving feedback well and really to creating healthy relationships. One of the paradoxes of receiving feedback well is that in order to be able to say yes you also have to be able to say no. If you can’t say no to feedback what ends up happening is you’re constantly saying yes and maybe resentment builds up and then instead of actually engaging and having conversation, we might just end up fleeing the relationship altogether because there’s just too much pressure in it.
So there are three boundaries that are useful. One is simply saying I’m willing to listen to your thoughts and your advice but I may not take it. Another is saying the place that I’m in right now, your advice is not helpful so I would prefer that you not give it to me. And then the most stringent boundary is saying do not give me this advice and if you continue to give me this advice I’m gonna have to leave the relationship or I’m gonna have to – there are gonna be some consequences that I have to impose.
So one key in turning down feedback is to use the word and. And what that really means is to – you can be firm in turning down feedback but also appreciate the potentially positive intentions that someone has. Your friend or sibling may be giving you advice on dating, so it’s driving you crazy but their intention is positive. So you can say, you know, I understand that you care about me and you love me and you want me to have a happy life. At the same time, in other words and, and it’s having a negative impact on me. So you can appreciate the intention and then also turn down the actual feedback.
It’s important when turning down feedback to be specific. Don’t simply say, “You’re driving me crazy” or “Stop annoying me” or “Stop giving me feedback.” Be explicit and specific about the topic that is upsetting you. So, for example, if a friend is staying with you over the weekend say, “If you’re gonna stay here for the weekend I request that you not give me advice about my parenting or that you not comment on my parenting.” And then explain why – explain why it’s upsetting. That gives the other person at least a fighting chance of complying with what’s important to you.
It’s also useful to be specific about the timeframe. So is this your asking as you get your feet under you as a new parent is this something that you just would like their complaints the first few months that they not be badgering you or maybe it’s your whole life. It’s also important if there are gonna be consequences, if you’re thinking, “Gee, if you’re gonna continually give me advice about my parenting it’s gonna cause me to try to avoid you sometimes and that’s upsetting for me as well as for you.” So if that’s the case, if you really are gonna be avoiding the person they should know the potential consequences. And then the last piece of it is to be, to get their ascent. In other words, to say, “So I’ve made a request. Is it clear to you and is that something that you can agree to.” And once they’ve signed on they have a certain level of commitment to it so they can say, you know, hopefully they say, “Yes, I won’t mention your parenting style.” And then if they do it’s easier for you to reference it as well.
So if I’ve decided that I’m not changing I’ve created a boundary. That’s fine but we all have a duty if we’re living or working with other people we also have social interactions with them and responsibilities toward them. So, for example, let’s say you’re my spouse and you’ve been encouraging me to try some medication for ADD. And maybe I’ve tried or maybe I’ve just decided I’m simply not going to, I don’t like it. So you’re setting a boundary. You’re giving me feedback. I’m not taking the feedback and that’s your right. But at the end of the day we also have the duty to think about the other person and to think about – so if I’m not gonna take the medication what can I do at least to make things better for you.
So maybe each morning we’ll go over a joint list of the tasks that need to get done today and we’ll just sort of problem solve together. What would be helpful to you? What’s gonna be helpful to me? And what might actually help the situation. You wanted me to take medication. I’m not going to. That’s the boundary but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a responsibility to try to make things better for both of us.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton