About me

Get new posts by email.

About me

‘Shooting yourself in the head’

Yesterday, I read Emilio Casalicchio’s excellent Politico article which gave a glimpse into the Conservative’s election campaign. I was struck by the line ‘launching the first attack by shooting yourself in the head doesn’t look so clever’.

But I was even more struck by the notion that the campaign had been led by a headstrong small team, which neither sought nor responded to external feedback. This is redolent of the flaws of Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign.

Perhaps responding well to feedback counterintuitively conflicts with the egotism necessary to seek public office. Perhaps this is only exacerbated for those seeking the top office in an era of ‘strongman leadership’.

It was certainly true that Sunak’s public response to even a hint of public criticism during the campaign was primarily defensive: he did not give the impression of being curious to better understand the alternative viewpoint, let alone to change course in response to it. It’s not like he’s alone; this behaviour is common.

Over the years, I’ve read quite a lot about the skill of constructively receiving feedback. I don’t think it is something that comes naturally to anyone, but it is a skill that’s particularly well-developed among people that I admire. Getting better at it has certainly been useful for me and has helped my professional development.

I recently read one of Arthur C Brooks’s articles in The Atlantic covering this topic, too. I enjoyed his observation that ‘once you depersonalize criticism, you can start to see it for what it is: a rare glimpse into what outsiders think.’

This is both blindingly obvious and yet also often missed: it’s easy to get too caught up in judging the person who wrote the comment or perhaps being defensive. But taking feedback exactly as it is offered—as in, this person thought X—can be radically helpful. One doesn’t need to agree with the other person’s viewpoint, but having knowledge of it can nevertheless be extremely useful.

After reading Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback a few years ago, I added a link in my work email signature which gives people the opportunity to offer anonymous feedback. This has served me very well, giving me lots of opportunities to reflect and develop my understanding of others’ viewpoints. Philippa Perry’s book also offered some useful insights into contextualising and using feedback in a personal (as opposed to professional) context.

I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if people were better equipped to receive criticism—politics would certainly be better for it. Failing to make use of feedback feels a bit like ‘shooting yourself in the head.’

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Like the first two books in the series, it felt like a privilege to be read Ali Smith’s Spring, which are sure to become a classic, at the moment in time in which they’re set. Smith captures the voice of an age. I’ve found the writing in this series dizzyingly brilliant—the language and the fascinating ways in which Smith manipulates it are somehow more important than the plot. The raw anger in this volume in particular was something else. This was astounding.

There are lots of different editions of Italo Clavino’s Difficult Loves: mine had the classic collection of “Difficult Loves” short stories written in the 1950s, followed by the slightly longer stories “Smog” and “A Plunge Into Real Estate”. The overarching themes were love (in its broadest sense) and loneliness. I don’t usually get on with short stories, but this collection was an exception. The everyday tales which beautifully captured universal emotions; the dry humour; the hint of craziness that made me look at the world slightly differently; all allowed Calvino’s prose to take flight. It’s been years since I last read any Calvino, but I won’t let it be so long next time!

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a collection of amusing autobiographical short stories or ramblings about travel, writing, and life in general. As you probably know, Sedaris is an American living in rural England and he draws a lot on differences in US and British culture in this volume. This is the first time I’ve read any of his work, and it made me laugh out loud a few times, which books rarely do – and it was pleasantly cosy and inconsequential. I’ll certainly read more of Sedaris’s collections. 

I found Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall utterly gripping, and finished it in a day. It was a book about a group of undergraduates, guided by an amateur historian (and his wife and child) plus a university professor, going on a camping trip in Northumberland and trying to recreate Iron Age life. There were some beautiful descriptions of the expansive scenery of Northumberland, which meant all the more to me for being local, and some very carefully observed descriptions of the lack of recognition of domestic abuse among victims. This left me with a lot of food for thought.

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen was a book about how to receive feedback effectively. I found the book baggy and over-long, with rather too many repetitive examples. That said, there was more useful stuff in here than I expected. It shifted my understanding of feedback conversations from being one-way (i.e. passively receiving feedback) to being two-way (i.e. working together to understand the intention behind the feedback and reach a mutual understanding on the next steps). This is an obvious point, but I confess that it’s not one that’s occurred to me in those terms before—perhaps fed by a lifetime of written feedback and evaluative assessment where there’s no opportunity to engage in further discussion.

Heartburn was a short and funny autobiographical novel about the breakdown of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein. It used a series of relatively frothy vignettes (interspersed with the occasional recipe) to reveal rather deep reflections on life, pain and betrayal. I think I perhaps prefer Ephron’s shorter essays than this longer book, but I found the book so cleverly put together that I might come to think differently about that as I reflect further.

Women and Power was a book based on two speeches by Mary Beard about the way in which women have been systematically denied a public voice. The first took a historical, longitudinal and structural approach to that question, while the second focused more on contemporary examples. I found Beard’s historical account interesting and compelling, but I wish it had gone further. In particular, I would have liked to better understand Beard’s views on how things can change, and what the future may hold – but perhaps that’s not the point of a history book.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. Information about cookies and the handling of emails submitted for the 'new posts by email' service can be found in the privacy policy. This site uses affiliate links: if you buy something via a link on this site, I might get a small percentage in commission. Here's hoping.