How to Get Better Feedback

Stacey Hanke asked on twitter:

Why is it that when I ask for feedback, it’s never constructive. It’s always vague “good job, nice work.” What does it take to get thorough feedback?

Giving feedback is risky. Most people don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. They’ve learned many people are just fishing for praise when they ask for feedback, so that’s what they provide.

Some people are more honest with feedback than others. Seek them out. And it’s up to you to cultivate trust with someone to get to the point where they feel safe enough to give you honest criticism. Consider the cliche “do I look good in this bathing suit?” who answers this with complete honesty? It’s typically people who know you well enough to know that you want to hear the truth and will appreciate it. It takes time for that kind of relationship to develop.

There are five ways to improve the quality of feedback you get:

  • Who you ask. What coworker do you have a strong enough relationship with that they’ll take the risk? Seek them out on something small, push them to be honest, and then genuinely reward them. Repeat, and over time you’ll can take on bigger feedback requests. And of course, ask someone with expertise on the subject at hand, not just your friend.
  • How you ask. If you ask vague questions, you get vague answers. Instead of “what do you think?” ask focused questions like “How can I make this better?”, “What did I miss?” or “does this design solve problems A, B & C?” This gives the other person something to aim for. You, as the feedback asker, have to frame what kind of feedback you desire, simplifying the work for the other person.
  • When you ask. If you want thoughtful feedback give people the time to do it. Set up a meeting where you forward your work, or questions, ahead of time. This shows you’re serious and that you’re willing to give them the chance to both look at your work and think over their feedback. If you catch a random person in the hallway and shove something in their face, you’re assuming they want to be interrupted from everything else they planned to do that day. You’ll get more thoughtful feedback if the timing of when you ask is thoughtful.
  • Where you ask. We are social creatures and behave differently depending on where we are. You get different feedback in a meeting with 10 people than you would over coffee or a beer after work. Different people have different comfort zones, but generally the more informal the situation the more open people are about their opinions.
  • How you respond. Everyone thinks they’re great at hearing feedback, but most people handle it poorly. They debate, they argue, and give off body language of offense. If you really want feedback you have to be prepared to shut up and listen. Ask qualifying questions “do you mean X, or Y?” and seek to understand their opinion more precisely, rather than to change their minds. And make sure to thank them sincerely (something that might only be possible after you’ve cooled down).

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12 Responses to “How to Get Better Feedback”

  1. Andrew Cairns

    Great topic – I’ve always found asking questions along the lines of: “what’s wrong with this” instead of “what do you think” is a better way to disarm those close to you and let them know it’s ok to criticise.

  2. Jay Goldman

    Great post (as always) Scott!

    I’d add two things:

    What you ask is key. What we learned at Rypple (now, which started out as an anonymous way to get feedback, is that the specificity of the question both improves the quality of the response and the likelihood that someone will reply. Really useful phrasing: what’s one thing I can do to improve X? Think of your a recent restaurant that disappointed you. If I asked you how they could make it better you might get lost in the realm of all the possible ways (especially if it was really bad). If I ask for one thing you’ll have a much easier time replying and you’ll focus on the most actionable change I could make.

    The other point – and maybe even more important one — is how you ask. The context for your question can have the biggest outcome on your answer. If you have a relationship of trust and respect with the responder then you may not need to frame your question. If you don’t, then set then up for success by committing to listening to their feedback, not responding beyond asking for clarifications, not holding it against them in any way (especially in a professional environment and even more so if they report to you), and to acting on it in some way. The last one is key – everyone wants to feel like they were heard and that it caused change – even if the action is to explain why you can’t do what they want.

    1. Scott

      Good points Jay.

      I was thinking before, and your comment reminded me, that one thing that’s taken me a career to cultivate is a handful of people who give me honest, useful feedback. In some ways it’s something you have to earn – either to earn people’s time to think carefully about what you ask, or to earn their trust in being honest.

  3. Mike Nitabach

    In academia, giving and getting criticism is something that happens multiple times per day every day, both on written work product (mostly grant applications and research manuscripts) and oral presentations. The way we handle this is to set up explicit contexts for seeking and receiving detailed criticism and feedback in “friendly” circumstances within our own labs, departments, and institutions with the goal of improving our work before releasing it out for review by “unfriendly” peer reviewers and external colleagues.

    As part of all of this, good mentors give explicit training to students, post-docs, and more junior faculty on how to give useful feedback and how to handle such feedback once it is received. Giving and receiving critical feedback on creative work is a learned skill, and takes a lot of practice.



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