4. Difficult Conversations

Why we are averse to feedback and what to do about it
Most of us academic faculty hate admitting to ignorance (even when it helps us)

Back in the day they had places called ‘libraries’ housing objects called ‘books’. Books contained knowledge. Importantly, books were readily available without appointment, books made no value judgments of readers nor thought readers stupid for needing to read them, and readers did not fear to approach them because the books might resent being disturbed or think less of those who needed to consult them. In short, books presented no intimidation barrier, potential embarrassment, or challenge to one’s identity and competence. The only real obstacle to assimilating the knowledge they contained was reading and understanding them. In the future perhaps technology will overcome even this obstacle through direct uploads of knowledge into our brains[1].

People contain knowledge too, sometimes even better knowledge than in books or computers. In the world of faculty development, people who’ve been through the process and succeeded contain a wealth of unwritten wisdom. The best of them can tailor their advice to meet the individual needs of each knowledge seeker. But if the knowledge seekers won’t access the knowledge providers, then the knowledge providers are no more useful than unread books. Indeed, every day in every academic institution, terabytes of useful faculty development knowledge go unexploited because its potential beneficiaries are unwilling to access it.

The first step in every 12-step program is admitting: “I have a problem.” It is surprisingly difficult[2] for us to admit: “I don’t know. I can’t do this. I need help.” If we can’t take this first step, it is that much more difficult to progress.

True story: I once spoke with a group of biologists who wanted to learn molecular biology techniques. They said: “We can see the benefit of molecular biology. We can see how and why our research needs it. We know we are able to master the techniques, and we have close colleagues who can teach us. But we can’t bring ourselves to ask them to teach us because it would make us look stupid.”

Why? And what to do about it?

Why even valuable feedback is unpleasant


System 1 responds instinctively and rapidly to the information before it.

System 2 orchestrates rational but slow thought, and accommodates non-obvious information. It is often subordinate to System 1.

System 1 copes with more information than System 2 can. It does so by jumping to conclusions. These jumps have predictable rules and trajectories.

These features can be exploited to develop academic faculty.

In an encounter with an advisor or feedback provider, System 2 of the advice seeker says: This person is providing me with potentially priceless advice. After all, this person potentially may see through my blind spots and be objective when I cannot. This person may know important and useful things that I do not. Even if this person’s advice is wrong, it is potentially informative. I should listen carefully, ask questions, and carefully deliberate on the advice.

But System 2 is not the only brain in town. Millennia of evolution have honed System 1 of our central nervous systems to detect and avoid risk. Evidently System 1 assigns great risk to the process of receiving advice from another person, and System 1’s response is powerful.   System 1 of the advice provider says: The implication of advice is that I need advice; i.e., something is wrong with me. All this undermines my identity and self-worth, threatens my standing, and represents an attempt to subordinate me. Even were this not so, nothing good could come of bothering or interrupting the person providing the advice, who surely will be annoyed and think me inconsiderate. This is bad! This is stressful! Respond as you would to any danger, risk, or stress. Or, as Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen[3] put it: “It can feel less like a ‘gift of learning’ and more like a colonoscopy. It’s no wonder that when we see tough feedback coming, we are tempted to turn and run.”

All this is exacerbated in academic faculty, who live by the legend that they are expert if not omniscient. Being deemed to need advice is a direct frontal assault on one’s professional standing.

As Stone and Heen point out, even without this cognitive overlay feedback is challenging to interpret correctly, and requires the full resources of an unencumbered System 2 to do so; read their book[3]. An empowered System 1 stands in the path to the growth, improvement, and benefit that advice that this correct interpretation yields. What can be done to nudge System 1 out of the center of this path?

Stone and Heen[3] identify three triggers of aversion to advice (the scenario above is mainly the third):

  1. Truth triggers: the advice appears wrong; one is being falsely accused
  2. Relationship triggers: the person delivering the advice is aversive, so advice is rejected
  3. Identity triggers: the advice challenges our identity or self-worth

How NOT to pull the triggers

Stone and Heen also provide some suggestions on how to level the playing field for System 2; among them:

  • Inoculate yourself against the worst. That is, “think through in advance the worst that could happen, try it on emotionally, and reason through the possible consequences.” If the feedback is then bad, you’re prepared. If the feedback is negative but not that bad, you’ve a bonus. Our System 1s will try to envision outcomes much more negative than are realistic; pause to imagine more realistic outcomes.
  • Be aware of yourself, especially physical consequences of stress such as rapid heartbeat or breathing. If you detect these, your System 1 is likely jumping to conclusions about the advice. Try to breathe slowly and relax. Notice your mood and feelings, and ask how these might be influencing your response to the facts of the feedback.
  • Rebalance the feedback.   Anyone who’s gotten teaching evaluations knows that some are worse than others; our System 1 seizes upon the bad ones. Focus on the entire range. Before concluding you are completely worthless (and reacting to this conclusion), recall the other instances in which feedback has been more positive.
  • Step outside of your present self. Imagine yourself as a third party observing the advice being delivered. Or ask a third party for an independent assessment. Imagine how the feedback will be remembered from a future vantage point. Imagine yourself as Gloria Gaynor.[4] Try to see or invent the humor in the situation. “When your think something is funny, you are helping to disrupt the panic and anxiety that are taking hold, and to calm down those upsetting signals.”

If you are providing rather than receiving the feedback/advice, no matter how well intentioned you cannot avoid pulling these triggers and stressing your advisee/mentee. Accordingly, you may anticipate such conversations to be difficult, and sometimes they are[5]. The actual or imagined nature of the conversation can cause anxiety and activate the System 1 of the provider.  If the receiver will play along, the advice/feedback can be delivered to a hypothetical third party (I prefer Joe or Jo) rather than to the receiver.

Annual performance reviews, and Craig Wortmann’s better idea

From this perspective[6], a less productive practice than the “annual performance review” can scarcely be imagined. Stone and Heen recommend separating the three components of each advice/feedback encounter

Appreciation (e.g., gratitude, praise, scorn)

Coaching (i.e., how to improve)

Evaluation (i.e., positive or negative)

as clearly as possible. Not only are these inextricably intermingled in an annual performance review, the System 1s of both reviewer and reviewee are on high alert. This squanders the benefit of coaching, presumably a major reason for the annual performance review in the first place.

Craig Wortmann has a better idea. Craig is a CEO, accomplished salesperson, and Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship. Craig recommends first that each feedback encounter contain four components:[7]

Step 1: “What’s one thing you think you did well?”

Step 2: “Here’s one thing I think you did well:_________.”

Step 3: “What’s one thing you think you should do differently?”

Step 4: “Here’s one thing I think you should do differently:_________”.

If you look closely at this simple framework, you will see the underlying design:

Steps 1 and 2 build confidence.

Steps 3 and 4 build skill.

You can’t build my skill until you’ve built my confidence, and this is the power of the design.

Craig also emphasizes that for maximum efficacy, feedback needs to be limited, frequent, and timely. Let’s unpack this. He advocates day-to-day or situation-by-situation feedback that actually helps increase performance by offering tactical advice for getting better at a critical skill. This is while the reason for the feedback is still fresh in memory, and avoids the accumulation of anxiety that activates System 1. Performance feedback has an expiration date.[8] Furthermore, Craig’s model refrains from a laundry list of identity-challenging, System 1-empowering flaws in favor of a single ‘thing you should do differently’ [sic, not ‘better’, but ‘differently’]. Finally, sustained and frequent application Craig’s model results in desensitization[9]. That is, if feedback becomes sufficiently routine, it no longer provokes anxiety in both the provider and receiver of advice.

HINT: Regular, frequent, and limited agenda feedback/advice conversations may be superior to occasional if not annual conversations with a large agenda.
Advice-seeking makes you look smarter (not stupider)

Nonetheless, does seeking advice really make you look stupid (or ignorant or incompetent or needy)? Curiously, this question has not been addressed until recently. But the results are in[10]. Seeking feedback or advice actually improves the advisor’s perception of your competence. Moreover, the size of the improvement is proportional to the challenge of the issue about which advice is sought. The improvement is specifically in the eyes of the advisor, presumably because being asked for advice flatters the advisor or reinforces the advisor’s own identity as an expert. Just knowing that a person has sought advice from a third party does not affect perceived competence. The only circumstance in which seeking advice backfires is when the advisor clearly knows nothing about the subject of the advice.

Brett’s daughter


Brett is a friend whose daughter is a rising star ballerina. Brett’s daughter is extensively coached, and receives regular and critical feedback.   She welcomes this. What disappoints Brett’s daughter is when a coach or critic gives her no suggestions for improvement. She feels her time has been wasted. Craig Wortmann says this attitude is shared by the leading performers and champion athletes he knows. These individuals have been able to subjugate or even co-opt their System 1.   Can academic faculty and their developers do the same?

We have met the enemy and he is us.[11] Or, at least, part of us. “If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”[12] “Use the enemy’s own strength against him.”[13]


√   IF YOU ARE A FACULTY DEVELOPER, think of ONE thing you can do to disarm the triggers of aversion when you next deliver feedback or advice — and try it out.

√   IF/WHEN YOU ARE A RECEIVER OF FEEDBACK OR ADVICE, think of ONE thing you can do to disarm the triggers of aversion when you next receive feedback or advice — and try it out.

[1] The Matrix. Warner Brothers.

[2] I don’t know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t) by Leah Hager Cohen; The Three Hardest Words in the English Language, Freakonomics http://freakonomics.com/?s=The+Three+Hardest+Words+in+the+English+Language&x=79&y=14

[3] Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Viking. http://www.amazon.com/Thanks-Feedback-Science-Receiving-Well/dp/0670014664

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBR2G-iI3-I

[5]Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Penguin Books. http://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Douglas-Stone/dp/0143118447

[6] Here are some other perspectives: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/10-reasons-performance-reviews-dont-work/ ; http://www.officevibe.com/blog/why-annual-performance-reviews-dont-work ; http://positivesharing.com/2008/01/performance-reviews-are-a-big-fat-waste-of-time/ https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/6-reasons-ditch-annual-performance-review?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=fa8e5facc0-DNU20160202&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-fa8e5facc0-198594029

[7] http://www.salesengine.com/sales-toolkit/performance-feedback-how-to-give-and-receive/

[8] http://www.salesengine.com/sales-toolkit/your-performance-feedback-has-an-expiration-date/

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desensitization_(psychology)

[10] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/asking-advice-makes-a-good-impression/ ; Smart People Ask for (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence

Alison Wood Brooks, Francesca Gino, and Maurice E. Schweitzer

Management Science , Articles in Advance

[11] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walt_Kelly

[12] Sun Tzu, The Art of War http://www.artofwarquotes.com

[13] From the Thirty-Six Stratagems, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-Six_Stratagems

©Martin E. Feder 2015

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One thought on “4. Difficult Conversations

  1. WWKD writes:

    You make reference to 12 step programs in two of the entries. You mention the first step is “admitting that I have a problem.” Step 1 is actually a little different as it is “admitting I, of myself, am powerless over addiction (your choice here – alcohol, narcotics, food, pornography, and others) and that my life has become unmanageable.” In the program, a lot of emphasis is placed on “powerlessness” as it can be a helpful tool to get past “denial.” I think this is where your comments relate well. Getting past the denial is critical in faculty development. I use something called the “distracting Ds” to illustrate the difficulty faculty have in this first step. The Ds are Denial (which is unconscious), Dismissal (so maybe I have a problem, but it’s no big thing), Defensiveness (I don’t have time – besides the way I do things has been working for me for a long time), Diminishment (of the person making a confrontation – Why are you making a big deal about this? It wasn’t a problem until YOU came around), and finally, Disengagement (F*** it. Nothing I can do about it, I’m too old and set in my ways.)

    The problem with admitting to a problem, is that people often see their failure to admit to a problem as an example of yet another personal failure. “Powerlessness” opens the possibility that addiction is more than an individual failure to admit to the problem – it’s much bigger and much more powerful. It creates a platform for “reinvention” – you may have heard 12 steppers speak of hitting “rock bottom” and having to start over and work “one day at a time.” A lot of the 12 step approach is about getting away from self-blame and recognizing addiction as a disease. Of course, some folks discount the approach. However, it has worked for millions of people.

    Some people say Step 1 is really about “honesty” – letting go of pride and seeking humility. Many of our faculty, especially some of those is the senior ranks, could benefit from seeking humility. Too often, we are all too aware of our own shortcomings and we “hide” inside of our successes – that’s the human vice (or sin) of pride.


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