“The single distinguishing characteristic between a foolish and a wise person is a willingness to receive and act upon feedback.” That’s the well-tested conclusion of best-selling author and business consultant Henry Cloud in his excellent book, Necessary Endings.

That was confirmed for me recently when I asked a friend who has done a lot of interviewing of job candidates, “What’s the one thing you look for above all others when you want to hire someone?” He said that most interviewers look for experience, or qualifications, or sharp answers in the interview, but he looks for one thing, “Teachability.”

As I think back over all the people I’ve known, I have to agree, those who are teachable, and remain so, usually succeed. The unteachable usually fail. This is true in business, in ministry, in marriage, in parenting, in education, in relationships, and in many other areas of life.

So how do I know if I’m wise or foolish? In Chapter 7 of Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud supplies a checklist to help us identify whether someone is willing to receive and act upon feedback. Here’s a slightly edited version of that list:

Traits of Wise Persons

  • When you give them feedback, they listen, take it in, and adjust their behavior accordingly.
  • When you give them feedback, they embrace it positively. They say things like, “Thank you for telling me that. It helps me to know I come across that way. Or “Thanks for caring enough to bring this to my attention. I needed to hear this.”
  • They own their performance, problems, and issues and take responsibility for them without excuses or blame.
  • Your relationship is strengthened as a result of giving them feedback. They thank you for it, and see you as someone who cares enough about them to have a hard conversation. They experience you as being for their betterment.
  • They empathize and express concern about the results of their behavior on others. If you tell them that something they are doing hurts you, you get a response that shows that it matters to them. “Wow, I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that. I never would want to do that. I am sorry.”
  • They show remorse. You get a feeling that they have genuine concern about whatever the issue is and truly want to do better.
  • In response to feedback, they go into future-oriented problem-solving mode. “I see this. How can I do better in the future?”
  • They do not allow problems that have been addressed to turn into patterns. They change. They adjust and fix them.

Traits of Foolish Persons

  • When given feedback, they are defensive and immediately come back at you with a reason why it is not their fault.
  • When a mistake is pointed out, they externalize the mistake and blame someone else.
  • Unlike the wise person, with whom talking through issues strengthens your relationship, with the foolish person, attempts to talk about problems create conflict, alienation, or a breach in the relationship.
  • Sometimes, they immediately shift the blame to you, as they “shoot the messenger” and make it somehow your fault. “Well, if you had given me more resources, I could have gotten it done. But you cut my budget.” The energy shifts, and suddenly you find yourself the object of correction.
  • They often use minimization, trying to in some way convince you that “It’s not that bad” or “This really isn’t the problem that you think it is. It’s not that big a deal.”
  • They rationalize, giving reasons why their performance was certainly understandable.
  • Excuses are rampant, and they never take ownership of the issue.
  • Their emotional response has nothing to do with remorse; instead they get angry at you for being on their case, attacking with such lines as “You never think I do anything right,” or “How could you bring this up after all I have done?” Or they go into the “all bad” position, saying something like “I guess I can’t do anything right,” which is a cue for you to rescue them and point out how good they really are.
  • They have little or no awareness or concern for the pain or frustration that they are causing others or the mission.
  • Their stance is one of anger, disdain, or some other fight-or-flight response. They either move against you or move away from you as a result.
  • They see themselves as the victim, and they see the people who confront them as persecutors for pointing out the problem. They feel like the morally superior victim and often find someone to rescue them and agree with how bad you are for being “against” them.
  • Their world is divided into the good guys and the bad guys. The good ones are the ones who agree with them and see them as good, and the bad ones are the ones who don’t think that they are perfect.
  • John D. McCarthy

    This is a very damaging characterization of wise and foolish persons.

    For example, you write about the foolish person “When given feedback, they are defensive and immediately come back at you with a reason why it is not their fault.”

    What if it is not their fault? Why shouldn’t they come back at you with a reason why it is not their fault?

    You seem to be assuming that all feedback is legitimate feedback. That is simply not the case. Some feedback is illegitimate.

    • Chan

      If someone comes up with negative remarks, it means somewhere in some point of view, your actions seem wrong, so it always helps to analyse what they’re saying instead of reacting.
      Even if you’re sure what they’re saying isn’t applicable to you, trying to talk them out of their opinion isn’t going to do any good except maybe waste your time. It’s best to deflect such feedback.

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