These days it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys; the distinction no longer seems to hold water. Binary thinking has evolved from a simplistic survival mechanism into a rationale for lethal polarization. Toxic call-out culture has most of us paralyzed. We’re afraid to say the wrong thing for fear of getting canceled, so instead we say nothing at all.
In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, we need simple tools to find our place in it, and to show up as human beings in the process. Feedback is one of these tools.
Unfortunately, feedback can feel like a scary maze, where the entry point is clear (“I know I messed that thing up”) but navigating your way through it is disorienting (“I have no idea how to tell this person they messed up, without hurting their feelings or ruining our relationship”). Rather than being afraid of it, we can learn to think of feedback as data. Ultimately, the opportunity for feedback to be successful is determined by its recipient. We get to choose whether we collect, measure and analyze this data, or avoid it completely. If you ask for feedback early, often and in small doses, the scary maze of mixed messages can unfold into a clear path forward.
Asking for feedback takes practice, but once you begin to build the muscle, it stops being so nerve-wracking and can become a welcome opportunity for deep personal growth. Like building any habit, you need to start small and begin at the beginning — the initial ask.
When you request feedback, it’s crucial to give specific direction.
A vague question such as “do you have any feedback for me?” will get you a vague answer, and most likely implicitly encourage the person to tell you what they think you want to hear. A softball question like this isn’t just lazy, it’s actually presumptuous, because it leaves the other person to do all the work. Plus, it’s intimidating—even if you don’t mean it to be!
Before you consider asking someone for feedback, do some homework and think precisely about what you are looking for. You may have just made what you fear is a huge mistake, or things may feel like they are going well, but you want to level up. In either case, you are asking for feedback as a way to double-check your perception of a situation. Kicking off your feedback request by sharing your perception makes it easier for someone to genuinely engage with you around it. By giving some context, you are putting skin in the game. Responding to a request by giving thoughtful feedback requires a decent amount of risk and investment — it’s a big ask that you can offset by meeting them halfway.
If you actually want to have a conversation about how you are doing, you need to make a specific ask. It’s the difference between asking someone to toss a bowling ball in a random direction versus setting up ten pins at the end of the lane, putting bumpers in the gutters, and asking them to shoot for a strike.
You can direct your feedback by asking things like:
- I really want to make sure that I’m getting my point across clearly in this presentation. What would make it 10% more clear?
- What can I stop doing, start doing and continue doing to be a better team leader?
- What’s one thing that really worked in that meeting? What’s one thing that didn’t land, or that I missed?
- Lately I’ve been working on getting better at time management. How do you think I’m doing with this? Any suggestions for how I might be able to do it twice as well?
- Do you have time to look over an article I wrote? I’m specifically looking for feedback on whether the overall flow makes sense, and if you think the title works.
Framing your feedback in this way does two things: recognizes that you’re not perfect and focuses the conversation on specifics.
Embedded in those prompts is the acknowledgement that there is room for improvement. Articulating this fact signals that you are open to constructive criticism, so the person you are asking doesn’t have to be afraid of shattering your ego by being real with you.
Feedback must be specific in order to be effective. It’s easier to digest feedback about a single action in a particular moment, than a generalized conclusion about who we are as people overall — and it makes us less defensive. By using a prompt like the ones above, you actually increase the likelihood that the feedback you receive will be useful.
Social norms around conversational interactions have such a strong gravitational pull that it feels difficult to step out of the pre-recorded script (How are you? I’m good, you? Good, thanks for asking!). Our responses skew positive and superficial. This is because we assume the person isn’t really interested in the actual answer. Directing your feedback request means that you are actually making a substantial inquiry, rather than a shallow bid for reassurance. It’s the difference between the person on the other end hearing “I really want to know what you think” versus “please just tell me that I’m doing OK”.
It can feel challenging, but here’s a cheat: ask for feedback when it feels like things are going well. That’ll make it so much easier to ask when you hit some rough water — and to actually hear the answer.
With feedback, as with many things in life, the first step is acceptance. It is safe to assume that there is always feedback for you — the question lies in what the feedback is, not whether it exists. The feedback is out there, it’s up to you whether you invite it or ignore it.