In a 1970s heavyweight championship boxing match, former champion Muhammad Ali was outmatched by a younger, stronger opponent by the name of George Foreman.
To overcome the odds and win the fight, Ali perfected a strategy that is now known as the “rope-a-dope.” On several occasions during the match, Ali pretended to be trapped against the ropes and goaded Foreman into throwing a flurry of punches to knock him out. Ali was easily able to absorb and block the blows while Foreman flailed away, throwing ineffective punches and expending much-needed energy in the process. Once tired and punched out, Ali was able to regain the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out Foreman in the eighth round.
Sometimes, people resist feedback using a similar pretend strategy. The feedback equivalent of the rope-a-dope is known by many names, but is most commonly referred to as “happy talk.” When engaging in happy talk to resist feedback, the other person will agree quickly to whatever feedback is offered so as to cut the conversation off. They often express optimism about incorporating the feedback and extend heartfelt thanks for the suggestions. All the while, they have no earthly intention of yielding to it. This is simply a ruse to keep you satisfied. The truth is, they just want your feedback to go away. Those engaged in happy talk want to keep on doing what they’re doing, and they want you to stop talking because your feedback either stings, seems irrelevant, or both.
Be sure to recognize passive resistance to your feedback and have a plan to negate it. Good leaders can instantly spot happy talk and push through this resistance by aggressively following up afterward to make sure the feedback has been considered and applied. If you suspect happy talk, ask the person to be specific as to how they will implement or incorporate the feedback. To push people forward, don’t fall for happy talk.