The things you never hear

The other day, at drinks after visiting a company, I chatted with some of the team. The star topic of conversation was an unpopular manager – someone said: “He’s a good guy, but someone really needs to tell him how broken his approach to management is.” It didn’t seem like anyone at the table was willing, yet everyone seemed to nod their head in agreement.

The next morning, half asleep on the plane home, I wondered what conversations go on around me, about me – the information I need to know, that no one is willing to tell me. What stupid avoidable things do I constantly do? What hurtful, frustrating behaviors do I have that I don’t even know about? I wondered how much better or more self-aware a person I’d be if I could hear just a fraction of the things I needed to hear, but never heard.

There’s a potential energy circling around all of us, of the things we need to hear that will change our minds, but never get the chance.

I wrote a short list of ways to try and get more of that energy:

  • Ask for it. Everyone I know probably has advice they’d like to share, but don’t think I want to hear it. If I ask for it I’ll push some of that potential energy over the tipping point. I just have to be able to graciously handle all of the difficult things they might say.
  • Reward those who give it. I have a handful of friends who will tell me the things no one else will say. I’d like to have more friends like this, but they’re rare and hard to find. I need to make sure I go out of my way to express how important this quality is to me – and reward people for it. I think I’ve lost some friends for not honoring what they gave me.
  • Act on it. If someone goes out on a limb, risking friendships or work relationships to express something, and then see nothing happen, they’re unlikely to take that risk again. But if I can act on what they say, even in some small way, then I’ve built a connection with them that they’ll use the next time around.
  • Make a pact. It can work best to be reciprocate – I’ll tell you if you tell me. Not every relationship can survive this kind of honesty, but having a pact in place to try and tell the other person what they should hear puts a useful tool in place. You can say, at any time “hey, remember that pact we made about telling each other stuff? And listening without getting mad” which helps soften the blow. And of course if the other guy gets pissed off and throws a chair at you, you’ll know it’s time to give up on the pact and find a new friend (or improve your chair dodging skills).

Who knows if I’ll have the convinction to do all of this – but we all have someone important in our lives harboring thoughts/ideas/gossip that we need to hear, and it seems like such a shame not to try and be open to more of them.

How do you make sure you hear the things you need to, from those important to you? And how do you tell other people things they need to know, without telling them too much?

14 Responses to “The things you never hear”

  1. Bryan Zug

    to be able to graciously handle all of the difficult things they might say

    There’s the rub. When I am able to seek out this kind of feedback, I usually feel like I don’t do a very good job of generously handling what comes back (without blowing it off).

    It’s something I’d like to get better at though — where would you go to master this kind of skill? what would that lab look like?

    Another addition to the list of things I wish I’d learned in school.

  2. Scott (admin)

    I think the lab for all social dynamics is the home – we learn how to both give and recieve feedback from our parents, since they’re the primary source of this information we assume to be good.

    I suppose the trick is this: You ask people to give you feedback, but tell them you’re trying to get better and handling it, so you may ask them, after they gave you the feedback (possibly an hour or so after so you’re cool again), for feedback on how you handled the feedback.

    If you can dodge the recursive death loop of getting feedback about feedback, this should help you get more awareness of what’s going on in your mind and heart when you hear things you don’t want to hear.

    Humor is the only way i can pull things like this off – Little jokes and smiles can go a long way towards making people comfortable, even if I’m having a hard time.

  3. Timothy

    Relevant post, Scott. I was on a project where I perceived that things were being said behind my back, and so I started asking project team members directly, “What can I do to be a more effective project manager, and what can I do to make you successful in your role?” (Always play into the WIIFM factor.) Most of the feedback was honest and useful. There was one seriously passive-aggressive analyst on my team who told me to my face that I was doing great, and within a half hour was gossiping about me to a peer of mine (who reported it back to me and also told the analyst to shape up). It takes all kinds.

  4. Jamie Fristrom

    Friend told me about the #1 policy at his company – I think they’re in the 50-100 employee range – “No politcs. If you have a problem with someone, you tell that person, and only that person.”
    This company, by the way, is considered one of the best in the game development industry.
    The poor manager the people in your example are grousing about may suck but his situation is worsened a hundred fold because these guys are forming a little faction against him.

  5. Mark Ashley

    Hey Scott, you may be interested in looking at a book (and associated curriculum) called Crucial Conversations ( In a nutshell, it focuses on how to be effective at dialog without getting embroiled in ego and emotion. It creates its own off-putting jargon, but it includes techniques for making it safe to talk, working on “me” first, creating a mutual purpose and developing mutual respect, and separating facts from stories.

  6. zandperl

    My boyfriend has a hard time telling me things when I need to hear them, but we try to compromise: he tries to tell me, and I try to ask. It’s amazing what a difference that small effort of me asking him makes.

  7. _Jon

    I think you have some great suggestions there.
    The item I want to opine on is the “Act on it” portion. I have a pretty open dialog with a few friends. But not everything we suggest to each other is something we want to do. For example if The Mrs. suggests that I don’t watch as much sports or TV, but I have no intention of doing so – there’s not much to talk about. My point is that I don’t think every suggestion that one receives needs to be acted upon. Perhaps “Act on it – if you agree”?

  8. MarkD

    I’m curious how you handle the totally inane/unusable feedback you must get without creating emnity in the giver:

    Scott asked for my input – I told him to wear sandals on casual Friday, and he never does. He’s a pretentious jerk and I’m going to tell everyone why.

    Not every suggestion is a good one. Not every good suggestion is usable. But everyone you asked is human and has emotions and you’ve set some sort of expectation by asking.

  9. Scott (admin)

    Three things: First, when you ask, explain that you’ll consider everything they say, but you can’t promise you’ll act on every bit of feedback. You can set the expectations for what you’re asking for.

    Second, you can come back a day later and offer an explanation as to why you’re not going to follow that feedback. In the case of Sandals or other obsurd requests, it won’t be hard to come up with basic logic for not following the request (“I appreciate your concerns about my footware, but I just don’t see how that will improve my performance as a manager.”) or for asking them to add some logic of their own to the strange bits of feedback they gave you.

    Third, you can ask for feedback on more specific things. Ask for feedback about your management performance or about any recent situation where your behavior as a manager disapointed or upset them. You can frame the feedback in a thousand different ways to help let them know what kind of feedback you’re looking for.

    And of course, you’re not obligated to create this kind of relationship with everyone – you’re probably best off picking one or two people who’s feedback you trust most and improve those lines of communication. If there are people whose feedback you’re certain you don’t want, don’t ask for it. But if you do want more feedback than you’re currently getting, it will require some small risks, including the possibility of the situation you describe, to get it.

  10. Scott (admin)

    _Jon: By all means, you should only act on it if you agree :)

    I think there is a meta action: of at least acknowledging the feedback. Mentioning it later, or say that you thought about it, and even though you didn’t do what they suggested/requested, you appreciated that they told you.

    There’s also a big distinction between workplace feedback and feedback from friends that I didn’t make.

  11. chiquita_[!3]

    Very nice site! Great work! Please also visit my homepages:

    Meridia weight loss[url=]Meridia weight loss[/url]Meridia online[url=]Meridia online[/url]Meridia[url=]Meridia[/url]Meridia[url=]Meridia[/url]Cheap meridia[url=]Cheap meridia[/url]

    Good luck! :)

  12. Ginny B

    Scott, You are definitely on the right track and I am glad you are sharing it with others. One strategy I implemented with my teams was to set up a process whereby they could evaluate me yearly (just as they were evaluated yearly).

    First, I created a simple process for providing team members feedback mid-year so that 1) they could ensure they were on the right track, 2) give them opportunities for growth and 3) ensure there were no year-end surprises. One step was to tell them what they were doing really well, the other was to share with them “opportunities” to be even better. The point being to follow the Enlighted Leadership principles of focusing the energy on what was going right and ensuring we kept that in place and building on that energy by looking at ways to improve. Enlightened Leadership principles and training can be found at .

    Second, I used the same process for receiving evaluation feedback from the individual team members. I accepted their’s anonymously or they could opening give me their feedback. The results were life changing. I would receive encouragement and positive reinforcement for what I was doing well and advice on where I could improve. Sometimes it was a little hard to receive the latter, but nearly everyone who responded did provide sound feedback. Of course, there is an outlier from time-to-time like the sandles guy above.

    Best Wishes. G



Leave a Reply

* Required