Therese Huston: “We All Remember Praise that Lifted Us Up…Let’s Lift One Another Up More Often.”

Portrait of Therese Huston

Therese Huston is a cognitive scientist at Seattle University who studies, among other things, how people can give feedback so the other person can actually hear it. In her latest book, Let’s Talk: Making Effective Feedback Your Superpower (Amazon, Bookshop), she blends rigorous research with eye-opening stories to help you say what needs to be said and, even more importantly, say it in a way that can be heard.

Therese Huston also founded the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University and speaks frequently on feedback, decision-making, gender, and unconscious bias.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Therese about happiness, habits, and work.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative? 

Therese: I love my daily yoga practice. When I first started this habit back in 2015, I did 10 minutes every night. I was going through a stressful period at the time and needed some routine to calm my nerves before bed. It simply became what I did after I brushed my teeth. After a few years, I realized I should add a morning practice to launch my day, so I added another 10 minutes. Now I’m up to 30 minutes a day. No matter where I am in the world, no matter how good or bad the day has been, I have this practice, and it’s a surefire way to lift my mood.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

Looking back, I was such a troubled 18-year-old. I had an eating disorder in my late teens, so I had a very distorted view of what would make me happy. One thing that’s clear to me now, something that’s taken me years to grasp, is the beauty of self-compassion. For the longest time, I believed I had to be hard on myself. Now I know I can be gentle with myself and still accomplish great things, perhaps even greater things, because my self-talk is much more like the way I’d talk to a close friend. We all need close friends, and who better than the person you spend all of your time with?

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most? 

For my most recent book, Let’s Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower (Amazon, Bookshop), there’s one finding that still baffles me. Roughly one out of every three managers (37 percent) admits that they don’t praise employees for their good work. I find that so puzzling. It should be so easy when the message is “That’s brilliant!” yet so many of us still find it hard to do. It’s such a simple way to make someone’s day. We all remember praise that lifted us up, that made us try even harder. Let’s lift one another up more often.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

My daily yoga practice has been a game-changer. I gained that healthy habit by starting small and by using guided instruction (in my first year or so, I followed a video on YouTube). My other healthy habit is that I keep a one-sentence journal. I got that idea from you, Gretchen! I bought your little blue, one-sentence journal years ago, and once I filled it up, I got another. What helps me keep that habit is that I keep the journal on a shelf right next to a bottle of melatonin. When I go to take melatonin before bed, I also grab the journal and add a line or two. Stacking those habits into a single routine makes it easier.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Upholder, all the way. I have all the advantages of an Upholder (you can count on me to meet expectations and I’m incredibly disciplined) but I also have all the annoying disadvantages of an Upholder (some people find me rigid and wish I’d stop asking for expectations to be spelled out in advance). Take podcasts, for example. I have the good fortune of being a guest on several podcasts as I promote my new book, Let’s Talk, and some podcast hosts send out some sample questions in advance. I adore those hosts. The expectations are clear, and after I prep my answers, I can relax and smile through the experience. Other podcast hosts say, “Let’s keep it spontaneous!” and don’t send out questions ahead of time. That pains me! What are you expecting? How should I prepare? What if you ask me a question from my work 5 years ago and I can’t remember that statistic? I don’t sleep the night before those shows.

Incidentally, it was a lot of fun to complete that self-assessment to learn that I’m an Upholder. If you’re reading this and haven’t tried it yet, take 5 minutes and complete Gretchen’s quiz. You’ll get some customized tips for changing your habits! [Aww, thanks Therese! I’m so happy that you find the framework useful.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

I find it hard to keep my healthy habits when I’m exhausted. Even that one-sentence journal feels like too much on a day when I’m strung out, on those nights when I’m brushing my teeth way past my normal bedtime and I’m setting my alarm for an ungodly hour the next morning. On occasion, I’ve almost fallen asleep when I’m doing my evening yoga practice, and it’s a sure sign that something needs to change. Immediately.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? 

There’s a question I like to ask myself and it comes from Dr. Carol Dweck’s fabulous book, Mindset (Amazon, Bookshop). Dweck writes about the difference between having a growth mindset, where you see your basic qualities as something you can nurture and grow, and having a fixed mindset, where you see your basic qualities as set in stone. When you have a fixed mindset, you always feel like you have something to prove. So when I’m feeling a lot of pressure to do incredible work, I’ll ask myself, “Therese, are you in the learning room or the proving room?” I always, always want to be in the learning room, and asking myself that question takes the pressure off. I’m here to learn and grow, and whatever the experience is, even if it’s standing up and giving a talk to 1500 people, I can learn from it. I believe that all too often, we put pressure on ourselves to do our “best work.” I strive to always be doing better work. I can always do a little better, and that’s where I try to live.

Book cover of Let's talk by Therese Huston



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