Posted by: Bill von Achen | January 25, 2011

Using the “Ladder of Feedback”

“We can’t talk to one another, because we’re not listening to one another.”
           Eddie S. Glaude, Princeton University.

It’s a truism, but nonetheless true, that effective communication is a critical skill that is central to our professional success. But too often we confuse the quantity of communications with the quality of communications. We think that, simply because we’re talking, an exchange of information and ideas is actually taking place. Unfortunately, what passes for communication these days is more often than not just two independent monologues that happen to occupy the same time/space continuum.

This communication paradox is even more pronounced in many of the fast-paced companies I work with, and is especially problematic when it involves people who have different ideas on how to get things done. That’s because most of us don’t really think about the most constructive ways to react to the ideas of others.

In our Effective Communications workshop, we discuss the three reactions to the ideas of others. We can agree with their ideas, we can agree with their ideas and build on them (also called “hitchhiking”), or we can find a constructive way to disagree with the ideas. Predictably, it’s the last reaction, disagreeing constructively with another person’s ideas, that’s the most difficult for us to do, and do well.

In his classic book, King Arthur’s Roundtable: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations, David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of Education presents a simple but effective communication model that can be used to strengthen the effectiveness of communications in many situations. The model, called the “Ladder of Feedback” is especially useful in situations where you want to constructively disagree with another person.

Here are the essential elements of the Ladder of Feedback:

Step 1: Clarify—First, make sure that you’re clear about what the other person is trying to say. Ensure the accuracy of your understanding by asking clarifying questions. Be careful not to ask questions that are thinly-disguised criticisms.

Step 2: Value—Second, tell the other person what you genuinely like about their idea. Be as specific as possible to demonstrate that you understand what it is that they’re proposing. Don’t offer perfunctory praise that merely sets up your negatives.

Step 3: Express Concerns—Next, state the concerns you have about the idea that has been expressed. Don’t resort to sweeping judgments (“what’s wrong with your idea is…”) or personal attacks (“that’s a stupid idea”). Instead, use qualified terms, such as “what worries me about this is,” or “I wonder about this aspect…”

Step 4: Make Suggestions—Finally, offer your ideas and suggestions in a way that builds on the strengths of the other person’s idea. Alternatively, work to identify alternative approaches that accomplish your mutual goals. Focus the discussion on ideas, not on the people or personalities involved.

Using the Ladder of Feedback to disagree constructively with another person can provide a simple but effective structure to those difficult conversations we often need to have. If you’d like a copy of the Ladder of Feedback model we use in our Effective Communications workshop, go to our Resources page and click on the link under the heading “Effective Communication.”

What techniques do you use to disagree constructively with the ideas of others? In your experience, what approaches work best? And what steps could you take to improve your communications with others, especially when you disagree with their ideas? Post your comments here.  Thanks!

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