Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sheila Heen. Sheila has spent the last three decades working to understand how people can better navigate conflict, with a particular specialty in difficult conversations.
Sheila is a founder of Triad Consulting Group, a professor at Harvard Law School, and a co-author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it’s off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood), with Douglas Stone, and Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, with Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton (with a newly updated third edition that was released in August). You can find my first conversation with Sheila at tim.blog/SheilaHeen.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. And I’m going to skip the preamble. I’m going to keep it light. My guest today, my oh, my, do we have lots to cover and I’m excited to dig in. My guest today is Sheila Heen. This is her second appearance on the podcast. Sheila has spent the last three decades working to understand how people can better navigate conflict with a particular specialty in difficult conversations. God knows we need more of that expertise for all of our sakes. She is a founder of Triad Consulting Group, a professor at Harvard Law School, and a co-author of 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) with Douglas Stone and Difficult Conversations, subtitle, How to Discuss What Matters Most. Also with Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton, with a newly updated third edition that was just released in August.
Sheila and her colleagues at Triad work with leaders and organizations to build their capacity to have the conversations that matter most. Her clients have included Pixar, American Express, the NBA, the Singapore Supreme Court. Maybe we’ll talk about that. Who knows? The Obama White House, and theologians struggling with the nature of truth and God. She’s schooled in negotiation daily by her three children. You can find my first and very popular conversation with Sheila at tim.blog/sheilaheen. Sheila, nice to see you again. Thanks for making the time.
Sheila Heen: It’s great to see you.
Tim Ferriss: I know last time we spoke at length, I was in the midst of a very challenging chapter in my personal relationship. And when my team and I reviewed the last conversation we had, which I always do before a conversation like this, so went through the entire round one. And there was a line that stood out for all of us. And it might be a paraphrase. You can feel free to fact check this.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, yeah. I can’t wait to hear what you’re about to say.
Tim Ferriss: Quote, “It’s not just that we have difficult conversations in our most important relationships. Those conversations are the relationship.” And I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the sense that it seems like our most important relationships are defined and steered in large part by how we handle the difficult conversations, how we handle things when we are perhaps not our best selves. And to that extent, they’re what define a good or a bad relationship. So I just wanted to share that, because it stuck out for everyone who reviewed the last conversation that we had on the side of my team.
How should we talk about — because we did discuss a lot surrounding difficult conversations, and we will edge into a lot of shared territory. But how should we talk about feedback?
Sheila Heen: For me, when feedback is incoming, part of what I’m doing is scanning for what’s wrong with it. And we can circle back to this question because there’s a great set of things that are typically wrong with the feedback, at least that other people give me.
So it’s a shift from I have to decide whether I agree or disagree, and what’s wrong with it, to before I decide, let me just understand it. Let me just understand what they’re trying to say.
So if we go to, what language does that suggest? You can ask questions in one of two directions. Feedback always has a past and a future. So you can either ask more about where it’s coming from, like, “Say more about what you heard me say,” or, “Can you give me an example of that?” or, “Tell me more about the impact that had in the exchange.” So you’re asking questions of curiosity about, “What is it that you notice that is prompting you to say this to me?”
The other direction that you can ask questions in is forward-looking, where is it going to. “If I were to take your advice, what would I do differently? What specifically are you suggesting or requesting?”
If I’m feeling particularly defensive, that second set of questions is sometimes easier. If I ask the backward-looking ones, it’ll suck me into an argument about why they misunderstood, or misremember, or that’s not really what happened. If I just go to, “Okay, if I were to follow your advice, what would that look like in practice, in everyday life?” And sometimes they have an instant reaction and I realize, you’re just saying — drop you a note back to say, “I got it. I can do that.”
If I thought, what we were talking about, “Am I responsive in a fully human emotional way?” you’re just saying, “Just let me know whether you got my note. You don’t have to give me the whole answer.” Which is of course why maybe I’m not responding yet because I’m like, “Oh, gosh, that’s a big question. Let me think about it. I want to give you a good response.” And you’re just saying, “Just let know you got it. You can give the full response later.” So that’s an example of, “I now understand what you want.”
Sometimes the person doesn’t know what they want, but then that centers the conversation on, “Okay, so I don’t know how to change if you don’t know what would tell you that this is better.”
Tim Ferriss: Right. There’s phrasing from the last conversation we had that came up multiple times, which was, “Help me understand…” which I thought was very skillful because it is basically indirectly pointing the fingers at yourself, if that makes sense. Rather than “Explain yourself,” “Help me understand” implies a level of responsibility on the receiver that might help to diffuse things or deescalate things. If someone giving feedback comes in hot, so the wording might be diplomatic, but the tone is, “Listen, fucker, A, B, or C?”
Sheila Heen: Yeah, it’s amazing how clear that message is.
Tim Ferriss: Any thoughts for either how to deescalate or self-talk that you can use so that the person on the receiving end is able to reply in a calm, cool, and collected fashion?
Sheila Heen: It could be that calm, cool, and collected is more aspirational than realistic. And one thing that can help is just to name the surprise, or the, this just came out of left field, I’m totally knocked off my center. So just saying, “Wow, okay. Sorry, this is coming out of left field, so I’m just kind of on my back foot,” so that you’re just naming where you’re at in this moment. And sometimes, just naming it can help you find your feet again because you’re like, “Okay, I’ve just accurately described where I’m at. I can be in that space,” and now they know I’m in that space. Or just saying, “Okay, I’m feeling a little defensive.” And then you can move to a question.
A question that I’ve been using recently that has helped quickly get to the heart of what’s going on is, “What do you feel like I don’t get? What is it that you feel I really don’t get about whatever?” This situation, about how this impacted you, whatever they’re trying to tell you that they feel like you’re really clueless about, that’s often going to cut through the noise.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s, if we could, just jump into a real-life example. And perhaps we could examine painful feedback from the past.
Sheila Heen: Your own?
Tim Ferriss: Well, we can talk about my own. But I thought we would, given my job as the inquisitor, I would ask —
Sheila Heen: That will not protect you, my friend.
Tim Ferriss: I know. It’s not the flak jacket I always hope it to be.
Sheila Heen: I know. I know.
Tim Ferriss: I came into this expecting that I would be opening the kimono per se, but you just finished the third edition of Difficult Conversations, and you had to contend with some reader feedback on an example in that book that got large reactions. Could you elaborate on this?
Sheila Heen: So there were a lot of things that we looked at fresh, and rewrote, and reworked, and changed about the third edition. And one of the examples that got the biggest and most consistent negative reaction from readers was an example, a story in the chapter about shifting from blame to joint contribution.
And it’s a sexual harassment example. And although it’s told to characters, because all the examples in the book are real or amalgams, but disguised. That particular example was mine, and it came from an experience that I had pretty early in my career.
I was in my twenties, I was sent abroad to work on a project, international project. It was bringing together consultants from lots of different places. And simply because my organization was the one that was holding the funding and in charge of the project in the collaboration, I got named as the team lead. And I was the youngest person on the team by a good margin.
And so part of what happened, of course, and we’re in a very stressful context on site in a divided ethnic conflict. So the task that we have together, we have to come together, build a set of team relationships that are highly functional and adaptive in the moment as things unfold. And so the first couple of days are really spent sorting out, how do we connect and how are we going to collaborate together as we tackle getting ready for the project?
Over those first couple of days, things settled down in terms of people’s reactions to me being the team lead. I’m sure their first reaction was like, “Really? Because you look like you’re still in high school.” And I had several decades of experience, which was fair enough, honestly.
There was one guy who was particularly hostile to the idea and continued to be hostile to the idea. So I decide that the answer for this to win him over and sort out whatever’s going on with his hostility to my leadership, I’ll assign us a piece of the next day to work on together. And then we’ll just have to sort it out, right? Because we’ll work on it one-on-one.
So I did that and it worked beautifully. I soon learned that it had worked a little too well, because he started saying things like, “I feel like in another world we would’ve fallen in love.” He was indicating, directly and indirectly, romantic interest. And I was completely freaked out by that. And so I’d say, “I’m married.” And he said, “So am I. What’s the problem?”
And oddly enough, I felt totally paralyzed by it. And I’m not a shy person. I’m pretty quick to speak up. In fact, that’s some of the feedback I’m getting now, which is I’m a little too quick to speak up. We can circle back to that. Now I just have the opposite problem. And I felt like I’m sending the indirect signals, and slightly more direct signals that I’m not interested, and it’s not stopping. And I’m trying to avoid him, etc. He’s always right there. At any meal, he’s right next to me.
And so I felt paralyzed because I felt like, “Gosh, I have to be sure that I’m right about his intentions, that I’m reading him correctly. Maybe it’s just a cultural difference between us.” There was no HR to go to, and it wasn’t a hierarchical thing. Some sexual harassment situations are really tough, because it’s in hierarchy with a boss. Here, I’m actually in charge.
So the insight for me was, “Oh, gosh, I don’t need to be sure I’m right about his intentions. I just have to describe the impact that it’s having on me,” number one. And number two, and the reason it’s in the contribution chapter, is that it suddenly started occurring to me that I might have been sending mixed signals by accident. In other words, I arranged for us to do this piece of the project together, and maybe that was signaling interest.
And so if I just change my contribution — so my contribution to the problem was maybe inadvertently seeming like I was reaching out to give him special attention, because I was paying attention to what he was doing to try to get him in our meetings, to get him engaged, win him over. And the other thing I’m contributing is I’m not saying directly that I’m not interested, so I’ll change those contributions. So that was a big aha for me. We disguise it, we write it into the book.
The reaction that we got was, we had one student of ours who told us, “When I got to that part, I threw the book across the room,” which is not really the reader reaction you’re hoping for. I don’t know about you.
Tim Ferriss: What was the explanation behind that, if there was one?
Sheila Heen: “You’re blaming the victim. You’re blaming the victim. You are saying that she…” the name in the book is Sydney, “…that Sydney is at fault for her own situation, that she should deal with it alone. In other words, she’s got to figure out what she needs to change, because she got herself into this.” And people also had strong views about what was really going on with him. They had strong views about what you should do. “You should never have this conversation directly. It’s unsafe. You should go to HR.” So it was a very clear set of themes in the reaction. By the way, what’s your reaction as you listen?
Tim Ferriss: My reaction as I listen is actually more a set of questions. For instance, I’m very curious if the throw the book across the room reaction is mostly American-born-and-raised readers of a certain vintage. I’m wondering if that’s something you have observed in readers from many other cultures. I’m also wondering many other ages, because it strikes me as though that may be a very contemporary, industrialized US response, or North American response to things, which is just a hypothesis. But that’s what comes to mind from me from a curiosity perspective.
Sheila Heen: Totally. And what I particularly like about your curiosity is that like me, it allows us to locate the problem in them. “It’s just that you guys are either…” and I have this reaction, totally, “…too young…” Like I was, “…you’ll get it once you’re in the work world.” A big reaction was like, “Well, this just can’t happen. This should not happen,” which I don’t disagree with. And it does. So the goal is, what do you do about it? So some people were upset that it was even in the book, because you shouldn’t be talking about these things. It’s like, “Well, it’s a book on difficult conversations. So we want to be tackling the ones that actually happen.”
Tim Ferriss: We’re not going to choose the easy ones.
Sheila Heen: We’re not going to choose the easy ones. And if we don’t have it, people say, “Well, what about really hard situations like sexual harassment? You don’t address that.” So I agree with you that that reaction was coming partly from — and it has morphed a little bit over the years in terms of the generational sense of what should happen in the ideal world. I think when we’re in our twenties as young adults, we come into the world with a strong sense of the way the world should work. And then, we discover that that’s not the way the world works in many situations. And it’s kind of outrageous. And then we’re like, “Why are we not changing this? Why are you guys tolerating it?” And this is why revolutions are led by young people.
And I think as I’ve gotten older, what I’m noticing in myself is that okay, I address some things and don’t address others. But I also figure out how to navigate the world as it is. And then those of us in leadership have been successful in the world as it is. And so we’re like, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be able to navigate.” It’s a lot better than what I was your age. But I think that’s partly why we get complacent, because we do see the progress that’s been made, but then we can underappreciate the progress still to be made. I’ll also say that I want to be fair to the other readers, some of whom were young women from other cultures who have had even more stressful, extreme, horrific experiences, and were looking for guidance in feeling like they were being told, “Well, you’re on your own.”
Tim Ferriss: I was going to just say before we unpack some of the macro, and also the example that you’re about to give, which I don’t want you to lose track of, unless I missed it, you didn’t share how you ultimately address the situation. So I feel like that’s a critical piece of the story. So in the original edition, let’s just say, how did you explain how you then handled that very uncomfortable situation?
Sheila Heen: So part of what was so powerful for me about realizing, “Actually, there are a couple of things that I have done that have probably contributed to this. And those I have control over, those I can change.” And that was a relief. That was liberating for me, was, “Oh, okay, well I can be clear about the fact, even clearer about the fact. And I don’t have to know that I’m right about his intentions.”
So I pulled him aside and said, “Hey, by the way, I may not be reading you right at all. So I’m not saying this is what you intend. And you have made a number of comments about having a romantic relationship or a personal relationship. And I think I probably haven’t been clear that that’s not of interest to me. I’m enjoying our working relationship, and that’s super fun, and I think we’re doing a great job. But if I’ve been unclear, I apologize for that.” And that was kind of the end of it.
We only had another week or so of work to do together, but I felt incredibly empowered. And so therefore, when later readers are saying, “You’re blaming the victim and you’re saying it’s her fault and that she’s on her own,” I felt really misunderstood because I was like, “No, no, no. We have a whole section of that chapter that’s about it’s really important not to blame the victim.” And that a victim seeing some contribution also gives them back some control and power sometimes. It’s not saying they did anything wrong, you’re not blaming them. They didn’t do anything wrong. And it helps them have a little bit of control over making sure it doesn’t happen again in many cases, which was how it felt to me.
So when we’re getting this feedback from readers, I lost sight of what we’re trying to do in a book, which is that we’re trying to put in stories that resonate with people, where people are — we think of writing as a conversation with the reader’s internal voice. And if we’re doing something that’s creating a, “Wait a minute, that’s not true. That’s not the way it was for me.” Or, “That’s overstated.” If we’re creating a reaction, it’s going to get in the way of the conversation that we’re having because a book is a one-way conversation. So we’re trying to anticipate what readers are wondering about or objecting to or confused by or feel is off base and then address it right away in the book.
So the good news was that we had an example that was generating a lot of reader reaction that people were bringing their own experience to. That’s good. But the fact that then it tells the story as if there’s one way to handle it, when this was a relatively mild version that didn’t have power differentials in the way that many people have faced, meant that I suddenly, because it was my example, was feeling defensive and like, “Well, you’re misunderstanding me.” And so we did an interim fix where we tried to clarify there was no HR, that this wasn’t the only way to handle it. The interim fix totally didn’t work.
Tim Ferriss: So it wasn’t clear in the original edition that you did not have HR or some intermediary to go to, or it wasn’t sufficiently clear?
Sheila Heen: We felt that it was clear. Yes, we felt that it was clear. So that’s the thing is we felt that it was incredibly clear and that other people were misunderstanding us. And we had a long list of all the things that were wrong with their reactions and understanding. So we tried to get clearer and clearer with the example —
Tim Ferriss: And it didn’t work.
Sheila Heen: It didn’t work. It didn’t work at all. So what we needed to do, which was what we finally did was say, “It’s not about my experience, actually. It’s about what the readers are bringing to their own life experience and the felt pain that they want help with. And this example, the way we’re telling it is not meeting them where they’re at and is a particular version which is not universal.” So eventually, in the third edition, we took it out. We replaced it with a different example that got to the points we were trying to make with it because we realized that we’re just creating more noise than help.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask a question about that, because the situation itself is outside of my personal experience, but receiving feedback on books —
Sheila Heen: Yes, is your personal experience.
Tim Ferriss: — and revising books is in my personal experience. So I’m very curious, did you receive strong positive feedback on that particular example from other readers, or was it pretty uniformly negative or confusion? Or did you also receive a equal amount or comparable amount of positive feedback from readers?
Sheila Heen: There were a couple of people who came forward to say, “Oh, I actually really loved that example. It immediately helped me see situations where, ‘Oh, I feel more empowered.’ I can see what I would do differently.” I, of course, remember those really clearly because I hung onto them so tightly. They were definitely way outweighed in this case. And you’re raising something that’s super common, whether you’re a writer or just a human, which is, “You’re criticizing something, you hate this thing, but actually don’t you understand that’s the best part of me? That’s what everybody else loves.” And so you get conflicting reader feedback.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say more about that? The part that other people like about you is that sort of contribution and reclaiming of agency, is that what you mean?
Sheila Heen: No. That often the things that we get feedback about from some people, our reaction is like, “Okay, well, that’s just contradictory because everybody else is telling me that that’s one of the things that they love about me.”
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Sheila Heen: So talk to me by the way about reader feedback that you get because I do think it goes into different buckets. Some is just, well, people have different preferences. And so some people love this part, some people hate this part or wish it were different.
Tim Ferriss: I should say a few things. The first is that I try to, in the case of reader feedback, which is different from proofreader feedback, they’re very different, because when I reach out to proofreaders, I know the sample size. If I reach out to 10 proofreaders, I can look at which responses are positive, negative, neutral, 10 out of 10. But when you get negative feedback or criticism, there’s a selection bias. If you are operating a customer service hotline, chances are that people who are thrilled with their experience are not going to be the ones who call in or they’re going to be far fewer. So it’s easy to sometimes perceive that something is being uniformly, across the board, criticized when in reality, for instance, this has happened in the podcast where I’ve talked about certain things that I’ve done or said that have come under fire, and then people come out of the woodwork to say, “Hey, we are actually the silent majority who think it’s great or totally fine, but we’re not the ones who are on Twitter yelling and screaming about it.”
So I just want to point out that sort of selection bias that I try to be aware of with. I pay more attention to proofreader feedback generally than I do reader feedback. I pay attention to both. For instance, I was just giving someone this example last night, The 4-Hour Workweek came out in 2007, and there was a quote at the head of a chapter from Bill Cosby about breaking the rules that are set for you in an industry. And thank God that a number of readers pointed out maybe that should be taken out for the next printing. And of course I agreed with that and took it out.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, it quite differently.
Tim Ferriss: There’s no upside to that. Only downside. It detracts from the point I’m trying to make and it’s a distraction, not an addition. There’s really no upside for the reader or for me in having that in. With proofreaders, and this will tie into the reader feedback, I am sending, say, a given chapter or chapters to professional writers who are friends of mine who ideally have different sensibilities also to non-professional writers, so let’s just call them lay audience readers. And I’m generally asking, first and foremost, what do you find confusing? Highlight anything that is unclear or confusing. Second, highlight if I could only keep 20 percent of this chapter, what I should absolutely keep.
And then if I had to cut 20 percent, have to, which 20 percent would you cut? And my rule with the proofreaders is if one person among my small selection I’ve selected for good reasons, if they love it, stays in. And take something out usually requires a pattern. So if more than one person says, “Take this out, it’s slow, it’s slow, it’s confusing, it doesn’t pull its own weight,” whatever that happens to be, then I take it out. Those are my three biggest. I mean, if I added one more on, I would say, please note in the margins or in the document anywhere your mind starts to wander. So anytime you start thinking about your to-do list or your email or something else, that’s an indication that I’m not building sufficient traction and momentum in the piece to keep you engaged and I have to fix that. Those are the things I focus on.
Sheila Heen: The connection is broken between the voice of the book and the reader.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. It’s just not compelling enough. So I pay attention to those things. And there are some revisions that I’ve made over time where again, there’s not enough value and upside to the reader or anyone else to justify a counter argument on my part. For instance, in The 4-Hour Workweek, again, I used the word “retarded” at one point, and it’s not going to personally offend most people reading it, but it is outdated, and it just wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t a critical piece of a story. I could take it out. I didn’t feel like I was compromising the integrity of the writing by taking it out, so I took it out.
But in the case of your example, I would love to know how you personally feel about it, about the revision and the editing of that. Because for instance, as I think about my preparation right now that I am undertaking for trips starting next week where I’m going to be off the grid in some very remote, in some cases possibly dangerous environments, I’m going with someone who’s former military. It’s a long story that I won’t get into, but part of our conversation, largely directed by him, has been what we should wear, how we should pack, specifically, to minimize the likelihood of being a target, and different types of behavior, different types of decision-making that are intended to minimize the likelihood or reduce the likelihood of bad things happening. From my perspective, it would be irresponsible not to have that conversation. And I’m grateful to have someone on my team who has a lot of experience in these environments.
So this is just a way to say, I could say, well, these bad things shouldn’t happen, or these aggressors shouldn’t have aggressive behavior, but these things do happen. They will continue to happen. And so for me, it’s a question of risk mitigation, and of assuming some degree of agency so that we don’t feel like a piece of driftwood being thrown around in an unpredictable sea entirely. But how did you end up feeling about making the revision? And by the way, I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t have made the revision, I’m just curious how it sits with you after the fact.
Sheila Heen: Mixed, of course. On the one hand, relieved, we wrote every different possible version to try to fix it as possible. And it’s just like, it’s just not good. It’s not serving our purposes. And it might be too close to home, too personal, so that my sense of it is muddied and we really need to hear the impact that it’s having, which is not helping our cause. And it is such an important issue for so many people these days, male and female, that it feels to me like a conversation about all of the ways in which that feels painful and we can feel powerless and stuck, et cetera. It feels like an important topic.
And it’s a conversation that I have with people a few times a year who come to me to say, I need help with this situation. So I’m mourning a little bit that loss and I’m at the same time persuaded the use of that particular example in this context was not helping. So let’s just let it go and let me think about what I need to learn about my own need to somehow have the particularities of my experience feel heard by readers rather than saying, the purpose is to bring forward your own. So that’s the point here. And Sheila, you’re missing the point. Can we circle to the proofreader feedback, right?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, sure. And also, I asked you to bookmark something that we can come back to or not, but you mentioned women overseas, maybe not solely women, but who have contended with much more extreme examples of your situation. So if we wanted to come back to that, happy to come back to it. But yes, we can also talk about proofreader feedback. So however you want to lead us.
Sheila Heen: Let’s go to proofreader feedback because one of the things I really love about how clear you are with your proofreaders is that you are implicitly letting them know what kind of feedback you’re asking for. This is one of the typical mistakes that we make, which is that we say, “Hey, could you take a look at this and give me some feedback?” Do you have any feedback for me is an incredibly hard question to answer.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, very ambiguous.
Sheila Heen: Very ambiguous. It’s like, how honest should I be? Should I have prepared, et cetera.
Tim Ferriss: And if these people are your friends, well, I choose my friends these days, I would say with one critical leg of the stool being their ability and eagerness to give me what might be considered difficult feedback, call my baby ugly if need be to save me some pain later. But early on, and I’m sorry to interrupt, but just to offer a contrast early on, I would ask friends of mine to read and give me feedback in just as many words. And many of them assumed I was looking for moral support. So they would be like, “Oh, I really liked this and this and this.” And they’d leave out the fact that they couldn’t make any sense of three other things and really hated two other things. But I was not surgical in my request. So they gave me what they inferred I wanted, which was a pat on the back and a pat on the head. And that’s not actually what I was asking for, but that was my fault.
Sheila Heen: Yes. And I think that’s a big thing that I have learned from the feedback work. When you say “my fault,” what do you mean?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I felt a little resistance there. Yes, they could have, if they had been more proactive, they could have asked me to refine or they could have taken a role in teasing out a more precise request. So I don’t want to put it all on me, but I also fumbled the ball. So they could have picked it up, but I also fumbled it a bit.
Sheila Heen: I think you’re exactly right, which is to have a rich and meaningful feedback conversation, there’s responsibility on both sides. And you are pretty clear, and your friends have learned, the ones who didn’t learn didn’t make the cut anymore, so they have learned what you value in terms of pretty candid coaching and evaluation.
Tim Ferriss: And actually, may I add one more thing?
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: The people who are best at giving feedback, they will sometimes ask for further refinements in my request.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, clarification.
Tim Ferriss: They’ll be like, “Okay, well, when you say this is what you’re really looking for, this or this,” they will drill down until they’re like, “Yes, I can repeat back exactly what you’re asking of me.” Great. Deadline, next Monday. Perfect. And then they’re on it, something like that.
Sheila Heen: And I think it takes that exchange. So you, I’m sure you have this experience, which I also have, which is that other people hand me their manuscripts. This was true two weeks ago and say, could you take a look at this and give me some feedback? And I have learned that I need to say more. Can you say more about what would be helpful to you at this stage? And just to put a finer point on it, one of the things that has really helped me is to understand that there are really three kinds of feedback. We need all three over time to learn and grow, but we might need different types at different times. And the first is appreciation. And sometimes with a manuscript at the stage it’s at, what you need to know, is there anything here of value? What do you like here? Because I just need a little encouragement to keep going.
And I think the appreciation plays a huge role in our willingness to stay engaged over time in the relationship. If I feel like you really see me and get how hard I’m working or there are things that you like and appreciate about me even in the midst of us having some struggle. The second kind is coaching. Coaching is anything designed to help it be better, help me be better. You are being really clear with your readers. Tell me what’s confusing. Coach me on where I’m not being clear. And coaching course is the big engine for learning and change and improvement. But you’re also actually asking for the third kind of feedback, which is evaluation, like rate or rank it. And what you’re saying is there’s a standard for what stays and what goes. Tell me what must stay like it well meets the standard for being essential. Tell me what doesn’t make the cut in your view. And that’s actually helpful to me. So you’re actually asking primarily for coaching and evaluation in your request, and when people are that clear about what they’re looking for, it’s so much easier to respond.
Tim Ferriss: If I could just bounce off of that a few things. First is that I will also frequently not ask someone to check all of those boxes.
Sheila Heen: Right. Often it’s one thing.
Tim Ferriss: You’re right. When I’m asking professional writers especially they have their own deadlines, they have their own work. Reading my stuff is not their job, so I’m asking them for a favor. Very often I’ll ask them to just indicate the 20 percent that has to go or the 20 percent that has to stay or just indicate what is unclear or slow where you start to think about other things. And I’ll make up for the lightness of that request by adding more people. I’ll just have more proofreaders instead of more requests per proofreader. And I should also say, I want to give credit where credit is due. So Steven Pressfield, incredible writer in his own right and has written The War of Art and many other books, talks about resistance. And he became an informal coach/therapist when I was working on fiction for the first time about, let’s call it a year ago.
And I sent him some very early drafts and asked him for feedback being, I think in some respects, masochistic. I asked him to just vivisect my work. And his response was basically, “I’ve read it, I want to read more, just keep going.” And what I gleaned from that was that he said, “That’s great kid. I recognize that you want me to tear this apart and that’s not what you need right now. So I’m actually going to give you the appreciation, not the coaching and evaluation. I’m going to give you the pat on the back and the kick in the ass just to keep going because actually that’s what you need right now.” And he was right. Of course, I’m speculating a lot about his inner experience, but that’s I think the intention behind the feedback that he gave me. So how do people take this framework, the three kinds of feedback and put it into practice, I suppose? What are some ways that people might think about carrying that into their day? They listen to this, they carry it into their day or their week.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. Well, one thing that helps is just to be clearer about what you’re short on right now or what you’re asking someone for. Or if you’re being asked to give feedback, to ask them and maybe not trust their answer. What I hear him saying is, implicitly we’re speculating, maybe, “I think what you just need is the encouragement to keep going right now.” He could also be thinking in the early stages of any fiction, there are a hundred things wrong with it, but you don’t figure out what they are until you’re further down the road and you are coming back and revising. So you’re just not at the stage that’s a good match for specific coaching because you just need to keep going. Once you see where this arc goes, you’ll back up and see and figure out what needs to change, who knows? He’s got some philosophy in his own head. In terms of getting specific about things you can do with this framework of types of feedback, they have different purposes. Easy way to remember them is ACE, A-C-E, appreciation, coaching and evaluation. We need all three.
Tim Ferriss: Could you just perhaps spend a little more time differentiating between coaching and evaluation? Because I could see mixing those up. I could see personally mixing those up. I think of coaching as part of evaluation. So how should we distinguish those two?
Sheila Heen: They often get tangled. And often I’m very clear that what I’m offering you is coaching for reasons that have to do with your personality problems. You’re hearing it as judgment or evaluation. So there’s often a mismatch between what the giver thinks they’re doing and what the receiver hears.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it happens a lot.
Sheila Heen: And partly that reflects the fact that packed into, implicit in any coaching, is a little bit of evaluation. Because if I’m giving you a suggestion on how to do it better, it suggests that you could be doing it better. And so we hear that, which hits an identity thing.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So is coaching the what and the how of improving, whereas the evaluation is basically fail/pass, A+. It’s basically giving someone a value judgment on their work. Good enough, not good enough. And then the coaching is here are the steps to take.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. So we have some set of standards for whether this manuscript is ready to go, is it ready to go out or not? What standards for performance expectations? In this role, here’s what we would expect from you. Grades, obviously. Here’s what I’m looking for in terms of the quality of your work. So yes, evaluation is rating or ranking against some set of expectations or standards how you measure up. So just asking, “Am I on track for what you expected from me in this new role?” So the question of “How is this going in our relationship?” is often, “How are you feeling about whether this is still exceeding your expectations?” or starting to feel wanting. That goes along with a whole bunch of coaching potentially for what I wish you would do. So the two are very closely related, but we have the biggest emotional reaction to the evaluation part because we hate being judged. It’s hard. It’s really hard to feel judged. And so we’re quick to hear it in anything.
Tim Ferriss: I was looking at some of the prep notes and one tactic, or maybe it’s more of a practice that I’d love for you to describe, is the phone a friend. Because this seems like a low-risk, high-reward way to cultivate the ability to look at things from multiple perspectives and to receive feedback well. So the supportive mirror, the honest mirror. Could you describe for folks what the phone a friend means here?
Sheila Heen: So part of the challenge of receiving feedback is, as I think I mentioned a little while ago, when feedback is incoming, formal or informal, I’m scanning for what’s wrong with it. As human beings, we’re very good at wrong spotting. What they’re saying isn’t true. That’s not exactly how it happened or in the context, that wasn’t what was going to help. Who is giving it to me? There’s all kinds of problems. I don’t like them. I don’t trust them. I don’t want to be like them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Why I suspect they’re giving it to me. They’ve got their own agenda for how they want me to change. When and where and how they gave it to me was outrageous and ridiculous.
So if I can come up with what’s wrong with it, then I can safely set it aside and relax and go on with my life. And the problem with that is that you’re always going to be able to find something wrong with the feedback that you get. And it could be 90 percent wrong, but that last 10 percent might be just what I need to be thinking about in order to change and grow. So for instance, what they understood happened and why I did it doesn’t make sense and their suggestion for what to do —
It doesn’t make sense, and their suggestion for what to do instead wouldn’t work. However, maybe the 10 percent is that they’re highlighting that this is maybe a bigger problem than I thought it was. I have my own diagnosis and I’ll come up with my own solution, but they’re putting something on my plate that maybe wasn’t as visible to me before.
Part of the skill of becoming a better receiver is not letting my triggered reaction and my wrong spotting be the end of the story to throw it all out, but instead to first work to understand the feedback. Then I can decide and sort what is right about it and what’s wrong with it. Now, that’s really hard for me to do by myself for a bunch of reasons in terms of the challenge to see what the giver means and the challenge to see myself accurately and all of that.
And so I can phone a friend to help. By the way, I’m going to phone a friend anyway. When I get upsetting feedback, I’m going to go complain to somebody else about it. Right? Over a glass of wine. And we’re going to make a big list about what’s wrong with this other person and all the ways in which they’re wrong. And so what I can do is I can reach out to somebody I trust, which I’m going to do anyway and I’m implicitly asking them to be what we call a supportive mirror, to join me in seeing what’s wrong with it.
Because if I’m really devastated by it, I’m not in a place where I can learn anyway. This one thing and this one mistake is the whole story about me. And I’m so knocked off balance that —
Tim Ferriss: Or if you’re just annoyed enough that you’re spun up.
Sheila Heen: Spun up, and rejecting it, and pissed off. Right? Absolutely. This is just more evidence of what’s wrong with them. I’m not in a great place and I need somebody else to join me in just getting myself back to a place where I can maybe hear what might be right about it. Asking a friend two questions. Ask you two questions and help you process in two directions. One is what we’re doing naturally, which is be as supportive mirror. Join me in asking what’s wrong with this feedback.
And then when I’m ready — usually, we quit there and go home because now we feel better. In the meantime, our friend is thinking it’s not totally off base. And so we need to give them permission to then when we’re ready to shift and be what we call an honest mirror and to help us see what might be right about it. What might be legitimate and maybe hard for me to see when we have a visual for the supportive mirror, it’s like a gold gilded frame. Show me at my best in flattering light. They’re wrong. I’m okay. I’m fabulous. And we do need that. It’s important not to skip it.
Tim Ferriss: And what might be right about it is more like black mirror.
Sheila Heen: It’s like a black mirror. The mirror that we often use is actually — you know that hand mirror that you find in barbershops or hair salons?
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Sheila Heen: And the reason — also black mirror. The reason we use that shape of mirror is because when the barber or the hairstylist shows it to you, they’re showing you the back of your head.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, right. When they walk behind you.
Sheila Heen: They spin you around so that you can look in the mirror and see, you can appreciate what an amazing job they did. But they’re actually handing it to you to help you see something that you can’t see by yourself. Being an honest mirror is asking a friend to help you see what might be right about this feedback. What do you think I should probably hear embedded in it?
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so I definitely encourage people to do this. I mean, I naturally do this with a number of my close friends, is ask them for that barber spin around, look at the back of the head.
Sheila Heen: Right. Right. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Here’s a question that is not directly related, but it’s certainly thematically aligned with what we’re talking about in this conversation. Also, what we talked about in our last conversation, things have changed since we last spoke. I am back in the singles arena and one thing that has struck me is almost no number of dinners every one or two weeks, where everyone’s on best behavior allows you to see what people are like in difficult conversations. Unless it’s heavily engineered, it’s unlikely to come up organically. Unless, who knows, the waiter spills tomato juice on her dress and she freaks out and smashes a glass on the floor and starts yelling at people. Okay, fine.
Sheila Heen: You’re like, “Well, thanks for the clarity.”
Tim Ferriss: But I haven’t yet architected something like that. But I am curious to know, and I’ll give a counter example actually. I’m not going to name names, but I was at the dinner with someone I know who, last I saw him, was actually, he was single, then decided he wanted to find a partner and basically made a commitment to every — he had a one-pager. He would show each person on a date and he’d be like, “What do you think of this one-pager? This is what I’m looking for.”
Sheila Heen: Oh, my gosh. What is on the one-pager? We have to know.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I don’t want to dox him, but a lot of women opted — nothing crazy, but he wants a lot of kids, as an example. A lot of women opted out and he’s like, “Great, I don’t want to waste your time.” And that was that. Some were like, “Actually, this is very interesting.” And if he decided that he wanted to give someone a serious shot, he would say, “I can make a commitment to you, which is in six months we’ll either be engaged or we’ll be separated. I won’t drag this out for a really long time.”
But his approach is then to spend a lot of time with that person. Basically, try to effectively move in with them for two or three weeks and see what happens. I don’t know if I’m ready to make the jump to that end of the spectrum, but it does make some sense in so much as fiddling around seeing each other intermittently, not really getting a good read of how someone handles conflict or difficult conversations or life when they are compromised, like rundown, low on sleep. Seems like it could waste a lot of time and you could just go on these multi-month boondoggles without either side getting a super clear read of the other.
Do you have any thoughts on how to figure this out sooner? I mean, I certainly have had the experience of say going on a week long trip with someone and you see how they handle their luggage getting lost or whatever it might be. But are there any other simple or elegant or obvious approaches that I’m just missing where maybe you could suss out a bunch in a conversation over dinner and I’m just not finding the path of least resistance with questions that really deliver? Do you have any thoughts about any of this?
Sheila Heen: First I’ll note the efficiency orientation toward dating.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I’m not getting any younger. Right?
Sheila Heen: I know, I know. Seriously. I mean, I’m not actually saying it’s wrong at all, but it’s the lens.
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Sheila Heen: Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yes. You’ve named the lens.
Sheila Heen: The 4-Hour —
Tim Ferriss: Guilty as charged.
Sheila Heen: The 4-Hour Relationship —
Tim Ferriss: Courtship.
Sheila Heen: — Assessment. Yes, Courtship. Exactly. That’s your next book. Maybe it’s fiction.
Tim Ferriss: Got a ways to go before I’ll feel remotely qualified to write anything.
Sheila Heen: And I think you’re exactly right, which is early in the relationship, we’re all on our best behavior. And sometimes not because it’s hard, but because we’re just excited and appreciated and flooded with all of the positive feelings. How we handle stress and how we handle conflict doesn’t come up for a while. At least experientially doesn’t come up unless, as you say, you happen to see it because something happens while you’re together with someone else who they don’t have this protective, positive set of feelings about. Whether that’s because you’re traveling together or something happens with the restaurant. And I would say that that’s a big red flag, obviously.
Tim Ferriss: If they freak out and start screaming at the wait staff?
Sheila Heen: If they freak out.
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Sheila Heen: Yes. It’s funny because sometimes it should freak us out when they don’t address it at all too, because that’s not actually going to be good in the longterm in relationship because —
Tim Ferriss: Yep, that’s fair.
Sheila Heen: — it’s like, “Well, that’s great, but now you’re not going to say something with me.” Some of it is that it’s a topic. I mean, even when we are interviewing teaching fellows, because we work together in a pretty intense January term where we’re together from 9:00 to 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 preparing for the next day because it’s an intense three-week term. Class all day, every day.
One of the questions we ask is, “Talk to me about how you experience and handle stress. What stresses you out and what helps you, and what doesn’t help you?” Similarly, “Talk to me about how conflict was handled in your family or in your past relationships in ways that felt right to you or that have felt frustrating or dysfunctional to you?” I mean, it’s a really interesting and rewarding topic of conversation.
Whether their espoused theory for what they think they do matches what they actually do, sometimes they don’t exactly. What we think we’re doing is not what other people actually see. However, it at least puts on the table what they think they do. How would you answer those questions in terms of how you handle conflict and stress and what helps?
Tim Ferriss: How I personally handle conflict and stress?
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I owe my ex a huge debt of gratitude in the sense that I think on many levels she was, and is, very emotionally intelligent. Very, very, very socially intelligent. I learned a lot through osmosis and through coaching. I was not always the most enthusiastic recipient of said coaching, but nonetheless.
Sheila Heen: It’s like, “I’m sorry, I was not realizing that I had hired you for this evening.” Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so I would say I tend to address conflict openly. And we may come back to what you mentioned earlier where some people have given you the feedback that you’re too quick to speak up. I do, and this has been consistent for a very long time. We spoke about this in the last conversation, but timing of those conversations matters a lot for me late at night when I’ve had a full, after a full day when I’m getting ready to wind down and I already have issues with an overactive mind and onset insomnia is not going to generally have the best outcome. Experimenting with other times, shorter duration, start and end time type of quick check-in clearing conversations is very effective for me.
I have found the book Getting the Love You Want and some of the frameworks asking for redos, having a shared language that allows you to, I suppose, resolve things with shorthand, but agreeing upfront that you are going to have that shared language and those practices at least for a period of time as an experiment, I think is super helpful.
I feel like I handle conflict reasonably well. In my household though, to answer that part, I would say I had, and this may not be totally fair, but I think it’s a decent read. I had one, maybe the term that you would use is a blame absorber in the form of my mom, very conflict-averse, quick to apologize for everything. And then my dad, and if he’s listening, sorry, dad, but blame deflector in the sense that things tended to be taken very personally, tended to get very heated, very defensive. “Why is everyone always ganging up on me or fill-in-the-blank?”
To that extent, I had an easier time interacting with my mom than my dad. But both of those coping mechanisms or strategies I have found myself using, and neither of them works very well. The deflecting, for reasons that are perhaps more obvious. The blame absorbing, I would say oftentimes because if I want a conversation to end, if the ask isn’t clear, if for instance, I’m being given coaching, but there are no examples that can be provided and I just see no resolution in sight, I am inclined to apologize just to make that conversation go away because I don’t see it going anywhere helpful. But then if I find myself doing that repeatedly, and this is true for a lot of people, not just me, having a stewing resentment that develops because the apologies aren’t really, one could say sincere. One could say, not really deserved possibly in some instances. Right? It’s a way to take the exit ramp off of this highway of fruitless conversation or debate or argument.
I would say I did not grow up with great models in the household. However, I would credit my time in sports and having coaches I really respected with helping me to accept coaching quite easily, including very harsh old-country-style feedback. Jerzy Gregorek comes to mind, who’s this former world record holder in Olympic weightlifting who’s an incredible coach, incredibly good at rehab and addressing injuries. His style of feedback, to give you an idea, at one point we were having a conversation early on over black tea. This is the intake conversation in California a long time ago. And he was looking at me sort of narrowing his eyes as he drank his black tea, and he reached across and he kind of pinched my pec, almost grabbed my nipple, gave it a pinch, and he leaned back and he said, “You are too fat.” But the guy has the bonafides. Right? He’s a real performer. He has an excellent track record and I was like, “Okay. Let’s call a spade a spade. Yeah, I could probably do without the late night pizza binges after having maybe one or two glasses of wine that I shouldn’t have had.”
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, okay. I could put up a fuss, but this guy is very straight. He’s not exaggerating. His tone is very matter of fact. He’s not saying it in some kind of finger-wagging, holier-than-thou way. It’s just a statement of objective fact, so fine. And so I would say that I feel very fortunate that in a sports capacity, and also why I think mandatory sports are an excellent, excellent idea for youth in general, I became very comfortable with fast direct feedback in those settings.
The way that I navigate conflict and feedback is very context dependent. And I would say that over the last five years, the way that I am able to metabolize comfortably feedback and elicit feedback in my intimate relationships or personal relationships, let’s say, has become much closer to what I’m able to do in the sports or skill acquisition arena. I can do that with language and other things as well. It’s not just physical sports. That’s the long story long, I guess. I’m happy to keep going though. If you want to keep me in the hot seat. I kept you in the hot seat for a while, so certainly if there’s more digging we can do, I’m happy to do it.
Sheila Heen: Well, so one of the things that strikes me, a couple of things that strike me. One is your experience with him and also with the guy that you’re going to be traveling with.
Tim Ferriss: With Jerzy.
Sheila Heen: With the coach, and also the guy that you’re going to be traveling with, who’s coaching you on what to pack and what to wear and how to stay under the radar. You are hiring them with that specific job in mind. You’re hiring them because you believe that they have expertise and you are eager to hear their coaching. It’s not always easy to hear, but the role is clear.
Tim Ferriss: The friend is just a friend who happens to come with the benefit of being someone A, I really, really respect as an operator in the world, which is important to how I —
Sheila Heen: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: — very relevant to how I receive feedback. Who’s better than me in so many departments, more skilled than I am, more practiced than I am in so many capacities that it’s very easy for me to receive his feedback, which is also very brief, very understated, very direct, says it with a smile. It’s not just the content, but the tone also is very matter of fact. Yes, but it’s part of my expectation in those relationships, that that type of feedback is something I value very highly.
Sheila Heen: And so that’s one of the conundrums of feedback is why is it that sometimes we’re so eager for it, and even when it’s rude and surprising with a pinch, we’re grateful for it a little faster. We’re like, “Okay, fair, fair. I’ll take that on board.” When other times somebody else could do the same thing —
Tim Ferriss: But if I were on a second date and I were really into some chick and she reached across and pinched me, and she was like, “Wow! You are too fat.” I don’t think I’d take it as well.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, no to future dates. Just cross that off your list.
Tim Ferriss: Very unlikely to happen, but the exact same feedback, different person, different place, I would feel very differently about it.
Sheila Heen: Absolutely, so this is one of the conundrums, by the way, of feedback, which is why is it that sometimes I actually, it does feel like a gift and I’m grateful for it. And other times it’s like, “Yeah, screw you. We’re done.”
Tim Ferriss: “You’re dead to me.”
Sheila Heen: “You’re dead to me, and we don’t even need to finish dinner. And speaking of sexual harassment, stop pinching my pec.” We’re going to come full circle here. I’ll maybe make a general observation and then I want to go back to your parents a little bit, too. But the general observation is that one of the things that we start to notice is that when we have a reaction to feedback, there are sort of three kinds of triggered reactions we have.
One is what we call a truth trigger. What you’re saying isn’t right, wouldn’t work, but good/bad advice, it’s all about evaluating the quality of what the person is telling you would help you. The second is what we call a relationship trigger, which is everything to do with who’s giving you the feedback. Whether you trust them, whether you like them, whether you think they know what they’re talking about, whether they really have your best interests of mind or their own agenda. We often have a bigger reaction to the who than the what.
And then the third is what we call an identity trigger, which is partly the story we tell about who we are and whether that feels threatened or not. But also in the course of the feedback work, we uncovered some evidence that suggests that in terms of sensitivity to feedback, how upset we get and how long it takes us to recover, that can vary by up to 3,000 percent. And so some of it is just —
Tim Ferriss: Can you say that one more time?
Sheila Heen: That our sensitivity to feedback and other things happening in our lives, by the way, it’s not just feedback, but in terms of how upset we get, how activated we get, and how long it takes us to recover. You lying awake in the wake of the argument, which is partly what’s wrong. The arguments are partly who’s the problem, which one of us is the problem, and which one of us needs to change, in many cases. How long it takes us to recover can vary by up to 3,000 percent. And so that is just the way we’re wired. Some of that is past experience or something around trauma that gets tripped, that changes your sensitivity.
Part of the challenge is understanding I am having a triggered reaction to what’s happening, whether that’s feedback or conflict, and in what ways is that making it harder for me to hear what might be right about what you’re saying and see what’s important. To circle all the way back around to the dating question, part of what you’re trying to figure out when you’re dating is, well, who are you? What’s different or cool or complimentary about this new person that I’m getting to know a little bit?
It’s really hard and the wake of a breakup because the baseline that you’re comparing to is someone that incredibly well and have a ton of history, and it’s really hard to close that gap when that person is the baseline. I’m curious about your reactions to that. Another question is, who am I in this relationship as it’s starting to develop? Do I like the way that I am in this relationship and the way I’m showing up.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a big one for me.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Does this person help me to be a better version of myself, or is this person sort of summoning the demons of my lesser self?
Sheila Heen: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a real thing.
Sheila Heen: It’s a real thing. And I’ll name the third thing, and then we’ll come back to this thing, which is just, okay, what’s the you plus me combination? How authentic and honest are we being with each other? Do I know what to expect? Do I know how you feel? Do you know how I feel, et cetera? And how do we handle the inevitable friction that we’re going to have? Because in any combination of two people, you’ve got lots of things that are complementary and some things that are going to have some friction just because you have really different preferences and habits and interests and whatever.
In how we handle that, does it bring out the better part of me or the worst part of me and vice versa? And does it feel fair also, or does it feel like one of us is always the one who has to apologize or to change? And so say a little bit more about bringing out the better parts of you and the worst parts of you.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let me preface that by saying I did a Q&A with some of my audience yesterday. And if my talking about relationship stuff on the podcast could be a Rorschach test, holy shit, do I get a lot of stuff projected on me. There were so many questions like, “Tim, why can’t you hold onto a partner?” Da, da, da, da, da. “What happened? Why can’t you learn the lesson about this, this, and this?” All of these things.
I would just say just briefly that I actually, if you were to talk to my last few exes, who I’m still on good terms with, they would, I think, all say that I’m a really good boyfriend. I’m not perfect, but I talk about this in the same way that I might, if I had an expert on language learning on, I would ask them how I could improve in language learning, even though I think I’m pretty good at it and have a demonstrated track record. I would still want to be better because I know there’s room for improvement. I just want to set the table a little bit so that I maybe stem the flow of, “Tim, why can’t you figure anything out in relationship” type questions in my open Q&A sessions that I do every once in a while.
But to come back to —
Sheila Heen: You are naming that that’s really, why can’t I figure out? Because it’s easier for me to see it you not figuring something out. But partly my seeing that is motivated by in my own life. Why can’t I figure out what’s going wrong in my own relationship or where I’m stuck? Or it might be I was stuck for a long time and gosh, I want to help you. But it’s hard for us to see.
Tim Ferriss: A lot of it’s people vomiting their own stuff.
Sheila Heen: Totally. It’s totally a Rorschach test.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, yes, and yes. I would say that more than almost any of the questions or criteria you mentioned, the one that gives me a clear signal is, “Do I like who I am around this person?” That’s it. And some matches work better than others, obviously. Some combinations are better than others, and sometimes there are massive trade-offs. Maybe you have excellent chemistry with someone, but it’s also so combustible and the communication is probably sort of handicapped in some way that’s going to be disastrous ultimately. Right?
The read that I ask though, because it’s something that I can confirm myself. If I ask a question about someone else or I make an assumption, for instance, that based on how they’re interacting in a first or second date, I think they’re going to be really bad at deescalating conflict. They seem to step on top of — if they seem to interrupt and step on top of me a lot, I might say, “It seems like X.” And they say, “Oh, wow. Well, you said I hated or loved X.” And I’d say, “Well, actually, no. That’s a very exaggerated version of what I just said, but those are not my words.”
And getting this taste test, I might infer that they would be bad at deescalating conflict, but I can’t really know that for sure based on a first date. Maybe they’re just nervous. Maybe they had too much coffee. Who knows? I can assess though how I feel, hopefully with higher fidelity. I pay attention to that because I think it’s a more reliable, knowable, defensible feeling or assessment. I do pay a lot of attention to that. Right? Is someone dredging up all the stuff that I haven’t had to deal with for a while?
Now, it’s not to say I can easily point the causality. Maybe there are other things that are happening that day, or that week, or that month that have set the conditions. Or, do I feel at ease? Are we laughing easily together, et cetera? Am I feeling good about who I am with this person, is very much at the top of my list.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, and part of what I love about that is that you’re paying attention to what is being called forward. Years ago, I was in one of those on again, off again, break up, get back together, terrible relationships that I couldn’t quite see my way out of at the time, and my mom, who doesn’t tend to say much explicitly, my mom gave lots of generalized coaching and instruction to us as kids, but she wouldn’t tend to comment on something specific happening in the moment. She’d give general advice. It was up to you to figure out, “Oh, this is one of those things.”
Tim Ferriss: Where it applied?
Sheila Heen: Yeah, one of those things. She’d kind of leave you alone in the middle of it. But in the middle of it, she said to me one night, “At this stage, I don’t know that it’s supposed to be this hard.” Somehow that was the light bulb that was like, “Yeah. Actually, it’s not supposed to be this hard, this early.” I was so appreciative at the time, and it was just an observation, so I’ll also then observe that focusing on, “Gosh, where is this? I’m really enjoying the conversation. This is really bringing forward my best self,” then sits in tension with, and what happens when we get in conflict because then it doesn’t test that sometimes. So what’s your experience with that?
Tim Ferriss: Totally. Well, I would say that there’s someone trying to make you feel good. It’s not that hard if we just go with the heteronormative thing for a second. If a woman laughs at your jokes, you feel great. So it’s not hard for a woman to realize that and play that hand very well.
There’s someone trying to make you feel good, and then there’s just how you feel from a state perspective being around them, being exposed to them. And so I would say it doesn’t show you the play by play of how something will unfold in conflict. And if someone is over-the-top cheerful all the time, that is definitely a yellow flag for me because that isn’t reality. And when the pendulum swings really far in that towards the mask of everything is always great, in my experience, tends to swing very hard back in the other direction equally into the darkness, so I’m cautious around that. But I would say that if someone can make me feel physiologically calm and relaxed and that is a byproduct of their personality, not necessarily the words they say or how they laugh at my jokes, that, that often I think is a foreshadowing of having a more easeful time in conflict.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: If I am less activated by the combination of our two personalities in general, when things are heightened, I will probably be more heightened, but maybe not DEFCON 5, in which case I will just be able to speak, listen, pause, suggest we table things for a while, and come back to them when we’re a little deescalated more effectively. At least that’s how, suppose I’m thinking about it now that I have to put words to it.
Sheila Heen: And you’re reminding me of something that we were talking about last time and that you’ve mentioned today as well, which is working something through to resolution. And I’m curious about what resolution feels like or looks like. In other words, I think in lots of interactions in relationship, someone is saying, “Hey, you did that thing again. And by the way, I just want to note I’m annoyed right now because,” fill in the blank, and noting it helps me actually say, “And we don’t have to talk about it now, but I just needed to name it so that I don’t instead act passive aggressively annoyed about it and pretend I’m not.” And then can we live in that space? Can we hold that space and we don’t have to totally unpack it right this very minute? And sometimes that’s enough. It’s a chronic thing between us and I’m just noting it. And can we live in that space, both of us? Do we feel equally comfortable or does one of us say, “Well, now that you’ve said you’re annoyed, we’ve got to stop everything and spend a couple of hours unpacking it.” And what’s our preference there?
Tim Ferriss: That’s my nightmare.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I mean, I kind of feel like a lot of processing, just like a lot of presentations, fail from too much information, not too little information in the sense that what does resolution look like to me, if that’s the question? I would answer that I think the simplest way to achieve resolution is to have some agreement of what that looks like in a shared framework, something out of one of your books or something from Getting the Love You Want, where there are actual triage tools that have determined endpoints. Whether the endpoint is, “I just want to say this right now, we don’t need to address it. I’m not asking for processing, but could we schedule a time to talk about it?” Great, episode complete. I’m not saying that as the one and only tool. The tool could be some version of Nonviolent Communication where when X, Y, and Z happened, I felt this. The story I make around that is this, could I ask you blank? Having a clear request and agreement and then episode complete. So I think it’s just having a mutual agreement as to what those exchanges look like.
And I mean, a question that I want to ask, because this came up in a number of places in our last conversation, but we didn’t dig into this one piece in particular, it’s related to a line that I’ll read, and there are a few different versions of this, but “given Gottman’s research, about two-thirds of our conflicts and long-term relationships are not really resolvable. The task isn’t to resolve them once and for all. It’s to figure out a way to handle them or navigate them and manage them together that feels okay and good.”
To zoom out, I do want to ask you about that and specifically is the only way to figure that out to basically be with someone for six months or a year. But broadly speaking, I’m wondering what you think of the Gottman Institute. They get cited all the time because I’m sure people have heard, and I’m going to get the specifics wrong here, but that the founders of the Gottman Institute could look at five minutes of video footage of a couple, and with 95 percent plus accuracy, predict who would be divorced within the next three years or whatever it might be. People have heard these anecdotes. What is the Gottman Institute and what do you think the strengths and weaknesses are to the extent that you’ve been able to glean either of those things?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. Well, so I think that the work that they’re doing is fascinating and additive and there just aren’t, particularly when they started, there weren’t people really studying marriage and long-term relationships, good, bad, and everything in-between. So there might be talk about why did things break down but you weren’t also looking at what was working for other couples. And from my point of view, of course, they’re focused on what’s most important, which is that they are inviting couples in, they’re inviting them to talk about a topic that is stressful. So they’re inviting them to have a difficult conversation and they’re hooking them up to heart monitors and all of that. And then they’re recording all that data and then they’re following the couple and noticing what correlates with either self-reporting being happily married and doing that over time. Because sometimes people will self-report being happily married and then they divorce and then they’re going back and saying, “Well, actually I wasn’t happily married,” which may be revisionist memory, but also maybe it was good enough for me to be happy, but then we weren’t talking about what we needed to talk about because there’s a portion of those that are —
Tim Ferriss: The good was good enough, but the bad wasn’t being addressed.
Sheila Heen: Right, exactly. The bad wasn’t being addressed. So it felt like, “Well, we never argued about anything.” Well, it’s because one of us wasn’t speaking up to say the things that were bothering us because it was good enough. So I think that the work that they’re doing is incredibly valuable and it’s very descriptive, meaning it’s identifying what are the variables. So eye-rolling is one of the things that is most closely correlated with the relationship fraying and divorce, partly because eye-rolling is just an external indicator of internal, “Here we go again. I’m not really listening anymore.” What they code as contempt.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, very — I’m not aware of a single culture where eye-rolling has a positive indication.
Sheila Heen: Right, exactly. Exactly. So what they’re doing is that they’re identifying and describing what correlates with a relationship ending or seeming to have staying power. What I love about that is that it lines up so nicely with the prescriptive work that we do, the diagnostic and prescriptive work that we do to take a look at, well, what’s really going on that’s getting us stuck? Why am I rolling my eyes? Because I feel frustrated, unheard, we’re falling back into our usual pattern where I don’t expect there to be a resolution, and I’m exhausted by that and I don’t know how to get out of it. So it lines up nicely with our observations about what gets people stuck and also then what helps. But it gives us insight through another lens about the longer term impact of that. The fact that about a third of the conflicts tend to be temporal, you can say that they’re resolvable or just we move on because we had to decide where to live, and we decided, and now we’re —
Tim Ferriss: Transient. They have an expiration date.
Sheila Heen: We’re not arguing about that anymore. We needed to figure out how to parent young children. We no longer have young children. Now we’ll just have conflicts about how to parent older children. So two thirds are just reflective of the particularities of you plus me and where we’re going to have some rub. And the question of are we able to notice that, note it and hold it with some humor and affection for each other in the midst of it, even as we’re honest and direct about you doing that thing again. And do we feel like, I feel seen and heard, and it’s a relatively balanced sense of sometimes you get your way, sometimes I get my way, and we’re slowly, it’s getting to be a less loaded topic rather than a more loaded topic. What’s your experience with the loaded topics and eye-rolling, maybe?
Tim Ferriss: I have very low tolerance for eye-rolling. I just don’t have time for people who behave that way. So that’s a one-strike-you’re-out kind of situation. There are too many amazing people in the world, and there are too many people who don’t do that also. There are plenty of people who don’t engage with that.
Let me preface, I’m going to ask a clarifying question about your question, but I will say that I was thinking about it a bit as you were discussing the Gottman Institute that I don’t say this much, but I’ve probably said it a half a dozen times, observing couples at dinners or at weddings where I’m like, “They will be divorced within three years.” 100 percent accurate thus far.
Sheila Heen: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Although I don’t think it takes —
Sheila Heen: You should just be deputized to let people know.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I don’t think it — honorary degree from the Gottman Institute.
Sheila Heen: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: But I honestly don’t think it takes Poirot or Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. I mean, to me, a lot of it seems pretty obvious, but the eye-rolling, making jokes that are at the expense of the other person where you observe one person laughing who made the joke, the other person clearly not laughing. Any type of emasculating, which can go both ways, but any type of cutting down in a group environment seems so obviously a recipe for disaster. But when you say the loaded topics or how I relate to that, could you phrase that a different way? What do you mean by that?
Sheila Heen: The topics that are chronic irritations between us or differences, and then we make meaning out of that. The fact that you know this drives me crazy and yet you still continue to do it, or this is something we disagree about and it’s still not feeling settled or good.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I suppose there are, of course, different species of chronic unresolved or maybe unresolvable friction. I would say that I, certainly, in my last handful of relationships, and it’s not like I’ve had a ton. I mean, I’ve had a few long relationships. We’ve come to a truce, I would say, on a lot of those things if we can laugh at them together, and sometimes they drive one person or the other crazy. But there are these manageable differences that can be more often than not laughed about. I would say for me, as someone who has always battled chronic fatigue, and I do think that could be explained partly by multiple documented infections with Lyme disease, but there are, I’m sure other contributing factors.
The problem for me is not generally the problem, unless somebody really betrays trust or something like that and does something that from the outside would be considered terrible, clearly terrible, which I had some degree of, what’s the right word? I would put up with more of that when I was very young. Like a lot of people, the exciting person was worth all sorts of drama. I’m just no longer at that place in my life. So I don’t deal with those types of situations really. But I would say the problem for me is frequently not the problem itself, the situation that is under discussion. It’s the method of discussion and the duration of discussion.
So for me, if constant processing becomes a defining feature of the relationship, that is a meta issue for me that is very difficult to metabolize, which doesn’t mean I don’t talk about problems. It’s just we should have a toolkit that allows us to, and also a degree of independent resilience and interpersonal resilience, whereby if someone dropped a piece of gum on the floor and they don’t do it all the time, just pick it up and throw it out. It’s not a big deal. This doesn’t require —
Sheila Heen: Accommodate the other person.
Tim Ferriss: Does not require a conversation. So I would say that for me, most of the issues, at least those that are coming to mind right now are not big in and of themselves. But if the discussion ends up feeling like it’s just going in circles upon circles upon circles, then I do struggle with it.
Sheila Heen: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That I struggle with, which is certainly not unique to me. Every couple I know has some version of this, but certainly my hope is that with someone I’m with long-term, the majority of time it does not feel like heavy lifting. Your mom said to you, “At this point, I’m not sure it should be this hard,” something like that.
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And the couples I’ve talked to who I really admire, who have been together 15, 20 plus years, generally all come back with some version of that. It shouldn’t be hard all the time. However, I find them all very difficult to model because almost without exception, they met when they were very young. Neither person had anything. They were young and stupid and loving life. And they met through complete luck of the draw circumstance it would seem. Oftentimes very early, and sometimes it’s like high school or college, and their lived experience is just very different from mine. My life doesn’t lend itself to as much of that now as it would when I was 16, 17, 18, 20, early 20s. So I’m not sure how to model what they’ve achieved, in other words.
Sheila Heen: Part of what you’re making me think about is a conversation that I had with my youngest sister who — I got married young. I mean, I look back now and I’m like, “Why did I think I had any business getting married at 26?” And so I’m one of those people who have been married forever. And I think my husband John and I grew up together in so many ways. My youngest sister got married at 38, and when she met her husband, well, at first she friend zoned him and he wasn’t a contender. And then suddenly she had this epiphany of like, “Oh, he’s the right person standing in front of me.”
Tim Ferriss: He was like, “I can wait. I have the patience of an insect,” as one of — “The praying mantis will wait.”
Sheila Heen: That’s right. That’s right. We actually commissioned a custom song for their wedding, and it was all about Stacy’s big epiphany and how patient Dan had been. I know you’ll come around.
Tim Ferriss: Good for Dan.
Sheila Heen: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Good for both of them, I guess.
Sheila Heen: Good for both of them. And in real time, it didn’t take that long. It felt like forever to him. But he then proposed quite quickly. My parents were visiting. My sister also lives in Boston, and she left the room and he suddenly turned to them and said, “I just wanted to let you know how much I am in love with your daughter, and I want to ask her to marry me and spend the rest of my life with her.” And my mother’s like, “Well, I have some follow-up questions.” My father’s like, “Be quiet.” He said to me later, “I wanted to leap across the island and kiss him. Yes, we love you. We think you’re awesome.” Which reflects something about each of my parents. But Stacy in the meantime was out of the room. And so she then walks back in the room, this is a completely out-of-the-blue topic of conversation.
Tim Ferriss: They’ve had the secret caucus complete.
Sheila Heen: And suddenly it’s like, “Well, okay, I’m going to run down and get a bottle of champagne,” kind of thing. And so they weren’t officially engaged yet, but it was on the table that they were more or less, and they had been dating for less than a year.
Tim Ferriss: How long had they known each other though?
Sheila Heen: About a year.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, all right. A year before that or it was a year total?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. Well, they met through a mutual friend at a party. The friend had called Dan to say, “You need to break up with whoever you’re going out with, because I’m going to introduce you to someone tonight.”
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Sheila Heen: But she didn’t know.
Tim Ferriss: Hope they get a bouquet of flowers every year.
Sheila Heen: Oh, yeah. They have milked that for all it’s worth.
Tim Ferriss: As they should.
Sheila Heen: As they should. And so they knew each other for a few months before she figured it out. And then they were dating in earnest. And then this is probably nine months after that.
So after all the toasts, she and I went for a run together, and she said, I said, “How are you feeling?” And she’s, “It’s just amazing, and I can hardly believe it.” And also I’m still waiting to find out what’s wrong with him. And my reaction was, “Well, five years from now, you’re going to have a much more robust answer for that question of what’s wrong with him. But the real question is, are they going to be deal breakers for you? And what would the deal breakers be?”
And so Tim, I’m curious, given your experience, partly what you’re listening for in the early stages of dating is are there deal breakers here for me, not because I’m judging this other person, but because I just know that that combination’s not going to work or whatever. And so, one of them sounds like it’s endless processing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, endless processing would be one. And I want to own my part obviously in some of this, in the sense that I’m sure I contributed to situations that were uncomfortable enough for my significant other that she felt the need to process. However, I do think she also leans that direction in terms of communication. So yes, endless processing or a primary project being processing that is expected to be a dominant feature of the relationship. Necessary for sure. But a dominant feature of the relationship? No, I think that it shouldn’t feel that hard. And if it does, chances are there are things that are probably irreconcilable differences. So that would be one deal breaker.
Other deal breakers? If somebody throws sharp elbows, that’s really what I’m very wary of for a lot of reasons. But if somebody throws sharp elbows, if they are vindictive, if they speak in a really aggressive, upset way about their exes, those are all red flags for me, not yellow. Those are red. And it’s astonishing what some people, and I’m grateful they do, but what some people will volunteer on first dates in terms of, “Oh, yeah, my ex did this and I showed him by taking a torch and doing this and this and this.” And I’m like, “Okay, hope you enjoyed your chicken salad because this has been swell. Thank you.” So the sharp elbows, somebody who’s in any way vindictive is a deal breaker. I would say if someone is a monologuer, that’s also deal breaker. I want somebody who is a good listener, good asker of questions. I think men tend to do this a lot more than women, the monologuing. But I’ve seen some exceptions.
Sheila Heen: I’ve dated some exceptions.
Tim Ferriss: Monologuers, overtalkers. People who step on me or other people when they are mid-thought to interject or one up, that gets exhausting. Those would be a few that come to mind. I’m sure there are others, but those are a few that immediately leap to mind when you ask.
Sheila Heen: Part of what you’re describing is something that the Gottman Institute would reinforce, which is that what are our implicit rules about conflict? And that the couples that have staying power tend to have boundaries on, no matter how upset I am with you, there are some places that I don’t go because in a long-term partnership you know each other so well that you also have the capacity to really hurt the other person.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally.
Sheila Heen: And part of because you know what would hurt them? And you secretly think it sometimes, especially when you’re frustrated, and that even in those moments, you don’t go somewhere that is gratuitously that sharp elbow or vindictiveness or meanness.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You don’t turn it into a Quentin Tarantino action sequence. It’s not —
Sheila Heen: Yeah. And it’s always amazing to me that they’re actually —
Tim Ferriss: Kill Bill.
Sheila Heen: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: — all of a sudden.
Sheila Heen: Suddenly, you didn’t know it, but I was wearing that yellow suit —
Tim Ferriss: The yellow jumpsuit.
Sheila Heen: — jumpsuit under my pajamas tonight. So I think that the boundaries that we each assume on how we handle the hardest moments, those being shared boundaries, feels —
— those being shared boundaries feels like a wise guideline to have for yourself. The other thing that I was thinking about about your processing point is that for me it feels like, boy, there’s a long period during which we’re bumping into each other and where there’s some friction between us, processing it to understand it better. What was going on with me that I did interrupt you — which by the way, interrupting is one of the feedback things I give my husband because he’s a big interrupter, which makes me crazy, crazy.
That means in part — see, I’m blaming him for this — that I am an interrupter, because if I don’t get my word in edgewise, I’m not going to get in. I think as a woman and a professional in some of the spaces I’m in, being willing to speak up to get into the conversation when there’s a moment to do so has in many contexts served me pretty well, and in other contexts and other relationships, I’m doing to other people exactly the thing that he does to me, my husband does to me, that makes me so want to kill him. The Kill Bill comes to mind.
I think the question of understanding, gosh, what’s going on with me, when does it happen, what’s going on with him, what does it happen, that kind of processing can be helpful. Then there’s a point where we’ve talked about it a hundred times, we’ve dissected it a hundred times, and we’re back doing the thing that triggers the reaction. It just is. It just is. There’s a point where you have to decide, and for me, the switch is he’s changed as much as he’s going to change, or I’ve changed as much as I’m going to be able to change.
I do it maybe less often or he does it less often. I’ll still do it sometimes, and misstep. If I assume this person is not going to change, can I live with that? Can we each live with that? If so, then it’s easier to have the, “Let me just note, you did that thing again.” “Oh, you’re right. I apologize.” We can talk about it later if we need to and we can move on, because we don’t need to reprocess something that we have already processed and we’re at the limits of how much each of us is going to be able to change sometimes, in some moments.
Tim Ferriss: Totally. What occurred to me as you’re talking also is that people like to do what they’re good at. The big strong guys like to go to the weight room. The flexy people like to go do yoga. The debaters like to debate, and the people who are on some level good at, say, emotional processing like to emotionally process.
Sheila Heen: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: If that is part of their identity, then you are signing up for that. I think I somewhat knowingly, somewhat unknowingly, probably signed up for that, and she is very, very good at it. It was, I think, a constitutional — meaning personal constitution — mismatch of sorts.
Sheila Heen: Not a national Constitutional issue.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Not talking about the Second Amendment here. Relax, everybody. Yeah, people like to do what they’re good at, and I need to be cautious about that too, right? Because my response to some of that would often be to try to put her in a cattle chute to get her into this logic puzzle where I knew I would be better. I’d try to steer her into some labyrinth of spreadsheets and analytics because I’m better at that stuff, and that wasn’t helpful. It was hugely counterproductive, I’m sure, at many different points, but that’s what I’m good at.
More and more, I’ve tried to cultivate an awareness of what I do because I am good at said thing, whatever that is, which applies to not just relationships, but also how you structure your day and your week and choose your projects. Are you choosing these things because they’re truly the most important, or are you choosing these things because you happen to have some skill and therefore it’s comfortable for you to do these things? I think about that a lot.
Sheila Heen: I just want to make an observation about what you just said which was so insightful, and where you feel comfortable and what you’re good at. Because for some people — and I don’t know her, so I don’t know if it’s true of her — but for some people, part of what makes them feel safe or secure or reassured in a relationship is to rock the boat. I’ve had some relationships like that, and rocking the boat so that we have something to process helps me feel connected to you. It’s redemonstrating that you care, and that processing, emotional processing, goes to a place that feels comfortable to me and feels reassuring to me.
In that place — if we go back to the three positions, which is just, there’s my perspective, which is obviously correct. Then there’s the other person’s perspective, the second position. And they’re inside their story, and their world, and why they think they’re correct. And then either both of us could step to the third position. What would a neutral observer say about what’s going on and what might help us get through this?
She’s in the place where, “I want to be connected with you. We need to be ourselves connecting in the first and second position,” and the place where you go because you feel more comfortable might be the third position, to step out, to be analytical about it, to say, “Well, let me just step back to understand what’s happening here, because if I can understand what’s happening here…”
Tim Ferriss: That’s exactly what I do.
Sheila Heen: “…then I have advice for myself about where to go,” and she’s like, “Don’t leave me here.” You’re disconnecting to go to the balcony or the third position.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You should do this for a living. Kidding, kidding.
Sheila Heen: That’s the way in which that processing also was not serving its purpose for her, and was not where you felt you wanted to be or what she was asking of you.
Tim Ferriss: That resonates as very on-point. I would further say that I contributed to that by, for most of our relationship, being very weak in terms of her love language of words of affirmation. It would make sense to me that with a deficit, with a lack or a deficiency of words of affirmation, that one — could be male, female, doesn’t matter — would want to rock the boat to elicit that type of connection in processing, to get those words of affirmation. I think I almost certainly contributed to that very directly in that way.
Sheila Heen: Yeah. I have that same profile. That’s a weakness for me also. I see it showing up in my personal relationships as well as my work relationships. I’m pushing myself more.
Tim Ferriss: Giving words of affirmation?
Sheila Heen: Yeah. My family was not a super demonstrative family, to feel the need to say it out loud.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, same.
Sheila Heen: It’s changing.
Tim Ferriss: How are you working on that? How do you work on that? I’m curious. I mean, I have improved. I’m still very much on training wheels, but I have made substantial improvement, I think. How are you working on it, or what have you found helpful to work on, giving words of affirmation, positive reinforcement? Because I did not grow up with a whole lot of that, and very much learned to do without it in say sports as well, and in skill development. I trained myself not to really require it and to be intrinsically motivated, so I then expect that of most people, which is an unfair expectation. It just doesn’t map to reality very well. How have you worked on it?
Sheila Heen: Some of it is just with conscious reminders to myself to do it.
Tim Ferriss: Just like a timer on your phone, an index card with five lines, that you can pull out and be like, “Hold on. John.” No, I’m kidding.
Sheila Heen: Well, you’re kidding.
Tim Ferriss: That’s the kind of thing that I might do.
Sheila Heen: Honest to God, yeah. It’s also trying to get better at noticing in myself when I do feel grateful for something somebody did. If I get an email that I’m just like, “Oh, my God, that is so helpful,” just to remember to say it out loud. The other thing is to just shoot them back a note to say, “Thank you so much for taking the time it took to send this to me, because it’s incredibly helpful,” and that’s all it needs to be. I also noticed that I’m better at it in writing than I am verbally, so that’s okay if that’s where the training wheels are, to remember to just text, to say when I notice something specific. That’s something we didn’t talk about about appreciation, which is just to seem genuine. Like, “Great job,” isn’t very genuine.
Tim Ferriss: Compelling.
Sheila Heen: Being specific — yeah, compelling. It doesn’t sound necessarily sincere. Being specific helps. Also just like, “Hey, I particularly appreciated your note,” or, “I thought your whatever had a really big impact on me.” I think the more I can just notice the small things that are specific, the better. That’s helped me. I don’t know, do you have other tips? Because I could use them.
Tim Ferriss: I was exaggerating a bit with the index card, but for a while — and I could probably use with doing more of this — I would literally put in a calendar reminders, like, “Say something nice to this person, this person, this person.” There’s always something I can think of that is specific, and I just, for whatever malfunction, through being a little nicer to myself, conditioning through my upbringing, neglected to mention, then I would mention. I’d literally put it in my calendar, and I found that helpful. I did find it helpful.
Sheila Heen: I also am appreciating your connecting this to maybe what was going on that caused the, “Hey, we need processing, I need reassurance, because I’m not sure where I stand or I felt overlooked or not seen,” et cetera, which part of what I’m learning is that when I have somebody who is frustrated or upset, it is often that they are also feeling underappreciated, and that’s on me.
Tim Ferriss: Totally. Let me ask you a bit about giving feedback instead of receiving, and I know we’ve touched on this indirectly and maybe even directly in this conversation, but for people who are in the supervisor, boss — or it could be a significant other, but we’ve spent a bunch of time on the personal. Let’s talk about the professional, even though they’re two sides of the same coin. If you are giving feedback to someone who tends to be sensitive, I’ll just set the stage — this is not actually really the case for me right now in any capacity, but it has been at various points with employees, with significant others — what are your suggestions for giving feedback, and how to open that door hopefully in a way that doesn’t immediately provoke or exacerbate a really defensive type of kickback?
Sheila Heen: One foundation thing is have the two of you had a conversation about how they prefer to get feedback? That can be one of the most helpful and powerful things to do, which is to sit down talk about, “Hey, what makes you feel appreciated?” Some people need to hear the words. Other people don’t really care about the words, but the fact that you come to them for advice with some of your toughest problems, or you would like their input on your proofreading, tells them they’re valued. “What makes you feel appreciated? If I have coaching for you, what’s your advice to me on when and how to give it? Do you have pet peeves about feedback generally?” We all have pet peeves.
That’s a really interesting conversation to have. “When you’re triggered by feedback, how can I tell? How will I be able to tell? It might be totally obvious, but sometimes people shut down, and I can’t tell whether you’re taking it in or arguing in your head. When you are triggered or feeling defensive, what advice do you have for me on what will help?” We have a little template that’s like, “How to get the best out of me,” that each of us can jot down some thoughts to and then talk about.
Tim Ferriss: How to get the best out of me. Is that a template that is available online or that we could put in the show notes?
Sheila Heen: Yeah, on the Triad consulting website, triadconsultinggroup.com. We have a nav called “Help Yourself,” and it’s got a bunch of templates, exercises, et cetera.
Tim Ferriss: Great. We’ll link to that.
Sheila Heen: Just having that conversation up front means I don’t have to guess at how to give you feedback because already told me, and hopefully I’ve taken some notes which I keep handy to remind myself. I can refer back, like, “Hey, I had a couple of thoughts about the presentation last week, and I wonder when it would be helpful to chat about it a little bit,” or whatever.
The second thing is that really the fastest way to change a feedback culture and to help people be more receptive is to become a good receiver yourself, and be soliciting and eliciting feedback from others. To assume every conversation, even when I think I’m pretty clearly the giver here, I’m probably going to end up being a receiver, because what they’re going to say is, “Well, the reason I did that is you were so unclear about what you wanted,” or whatever. I have to assume there are things I’ve contributed to the situation that are going to be part of the conversation, even when for me, the primary purpose is to tell you what I think you could do differently or better.
There’s a question that we use a lot that I think is incredibly helpful just in building a habit of integrating feedback into daily life, which is not, “Hey, do you have any feedback for me,” which we’ve talked about is a terrible question, well-intended but terrible. Particularly from a leader, because giving feedback up feels very risky and fraught. If you are in a position of leadership, you are impacting more and more people, and fewer and fewer of them are going to take the chance to tell you about it. You’ve got to actually have some pretty advanced skills in receiving feedback and inviting it.
One way you can do that is to ask, “What’s one thing? What’s one thing that I’m doing or maybe failing to do that you think is getting in the way, or what’s one thing that, if I could change it, would make a difference to you? Or what’s one thing that, in our Monday morning meeting, we could change to make it more efficient, because I know people are flagging, their energy’s flagging?”
That’s a question that you can toss off while you’re walking down the hall, and it lowers the stakes. It’s very clear you’re asking for coaching. You’re looking for something to improve. You’re also signaling, “By the way, I expect you to be receptive to coaching also, because I’m going to demonstrate I value it. I assume I’m still learning, and I expect that you’re still learning too.”
Tim Ferriss: One thing. One thing.
Sheila Heen: What’s one thing?
Tim Ferriss: It’s funny how one thing at a time, put in sequence, how much that can do.
Sheila Heen: It’s not is there anything, because if you ask is there anything, people will be like, “Oh, no, you’re great. We love working with you.” You have to assume there is.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s kind of like my, “If you had to cut 20 percent, what would you cut?” Not “Would you cut?”
Sheila Heen: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that’s such a great question.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s forced. It applies some very clear constraints. The option of not naming something is not implicit in that question.
Sheila Heen: That’s fair. Do you get people who ignore the question anyway?
Tim Ferriss: No, because they make terrible proofreaders. Generally my friends know. These are people I’ve known for a while typically, so they know exactly what they’re signing up for, and they know what type of feedback I have given them in the past also.
Sheila Heen: Right, so it’s reciprocal?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure. They have a very good idea of exactly what I’m looking for and they’ll ask clarifying questions if need be, but what is one thing, dot-dot-dot, is a really useful heuristic for getting the type of feedback that may not be forthcoming, especially if you are at the top of the pyramid or in the hierarchy in a leadership position.
Well, Sheila, we’ve covered a lot. What have we not covered? Is there anything that you would like to discuss before we begin to wind to a close? Have we neglected anything that pops to mind? We’ve certainly gone through a lot of different scenarios. We’ve gone through the interpersonal, we’ve gone through intimate relationships, we’ve gone through professional environments. Is there any particular point that comes to mind or anything you’d like to add, before we begin to land the plane?
Sheila Heen: What’s in my head is maybe a follow-on to what you just said about the one thing and being in leadership, which is, so when we were working on the feedback book, part of the challenge is that the need to give feedback is a felt problem. I have feedback for you. I’m carrying it around with myself because I don’t know how to give it to you, or I’ve tried to give it to you and you’re not taking it. If there’s a book that would help me do that, I would buy that book, and could use some help. The need to receive feedback from other people who are carrying it around and not giving it to us is not necessarily a felt problem. I’m oblivious to it. I have mixed feelings about it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like carbon monoxide, the invisible killer.
Sheila Heen: That’s right. It is the invisible killer. Actually that’s a very good metaphor for it. Do I want a carbon monoxide detector? I do. I know I should.
Tim Ferriss: You do.
Sheila Heen: It’s also moving from a push model of learning — I decide what you need to learn and I push you to learn it — to a pull model of learning, which is I’m curious what you think I have to learn or could improve, which is very much your stance, Tim. It’s very relaxing to be with someone who has that stance, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s also — and I think your book does a great job of this — I mean, it is a learnable skill. I learned this through skill acquisition, where for instance, I would need to have to turn laypeople, non-coaches, into coaches. To do that, you have to elicit with lots of very specific questions and very well-thought-through questions.
For instance, if you want a native speaker to help you learn your target language, that is actually a very big ask and very challenging if they’re not trained teachers. If you go up to a native English speaker and you’re like, “Tell me the difference between anything and something,” or, “When do you use an versus the when it’s a new person being introduced,” to a sense. Most native English speakers would fail the test of English as a foreign language, or do very poorly.
It would be so confusing, because what is reflexive is not something they can explain. I think I’ve developed that stance through a lot of repetitions with mostly different skills. It is not something that came intuitively, but it is something that you can pick up very, very quickly with the right toolkit.
Sheila Heen: With that toolkit, you become an incredibly skilled and fast learner. I think that’s a big aha for me, which is, “Oh, gosh, I can learn from anybody. They don’t have to be a skilled giver, because I can help with that to hear and understand what they’re trying to tell me, and then I can figure out what to make of it, and what I want to take away and leave behind.” The last thing on this front is that as leaders, sometimes people will say, “Well, I don’t really know what I should be working on.” My answer to them is like, “Well, you know who knows? Pretty much everybody else.”
Everybody around you has a list of the things you do to make it harder for them to do their job. It’s a list they pass amongst each other about you. It becomes the conventional wisdom about you, what’s great about you and what’s hard about working with you. If you want to know what’s on that list, you have to ask, and you have to ask in a way that persuades them that you actually want to know and you’ll take it seriously. You can’t promise that you can change it or you would change it, but at least listening for the themes that you hear from different people at different times will help identify the things that, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably something that’s not helping in this context.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This topic of feedback in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, it’s a bit of a Trojan horse for a bunch of things, as you mentioned, right? If you want to be a super learner, it doesn’t just apply to interacting with your boss at work. It doesn’t just apply to your direct reports at work. It doesn’t just apply to your significant other. It actually applies in a million different contexts. How can you elicit the feedback that will most help you to take constructive next steps? I mean, it applies to everything. To that extent, it’s very much a meta skill, that is transferable across a million different disciplines.
Sheila, people can find the Triad Consulting Group at triadconsultinggroup.com. I also did go to the Help Yourself, you have all sorts of tools and links available on the Help Yourself portion of that website, so people can go there. Is there anywhere else you would like to point people?
Sheila Heen: Well, so I’ve been trying to get better at social media and LinkedIn. Triad has a LinkedIn page and I now have a LinkedIn page, and I try to post occasionally and get more than occasionally. I think that the question of where do I get help with this, we also have a list of what’s on our shelf. You do too, Tim. We have a lot of overlap in the kinds of things that you are reading and thinking about, and this journey is such a central one that there’s lots of different resources out there. I’ll double-check to see if our latest list of resources, things that we would recommend, is up.
Tim Ferriss: Great. We’ll link in the show notes then to certainly Thanks for the Feedback, the book and books, Triad Consulting Group, and then to the respective LinkedIn pages, for people who would like to explore. We’ll put those at tim.blog/podcast as per usual. Any last words before we go? I’ll say thank you very much for the time, as always. Have enjoyed the conversation immensely and am taking copious notes.
Sheila Heen: Well, yeah. I am thinking about your dating project and journey, and so I’ll be interested to hear how it goes, and also what you find that cuts to the heart of, “What do I want to understand about this person and about myself in a way that we show up together that is either super energizing and rewarding and fun,” which is how it should be, “or anxiety-provoking and draining?”
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I would strongly prefer to lean heavily in the former grouping instead of the latter. I’ll keep you posted on my progress in that department.
Sheila Heen: Perfect. Perfect.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much for taking the time.
Sheila Heen: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Always such a pleasure. To everybody listening, you’ve heard this before. Until next time, be just a bit kinder than is necessary, not only to others, but to yourself. “Know thyself,” as the sign would say over the Oracle at Delphi. Part of that is learning how to elicit and metabolize good feedback, so take a close look at it. Until next time, thanks for tuning in.
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