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How to Get Better Feedback

Five tips for learning the unvarnished truth about your performance.
COLLABORATORS Scott Berkun, Stacey Hanke
Get better feedback
illustration by Todd Detwiler

“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?” asks communications consultant Stacey Hanke on Twitter.

The answer, author and speaker Scott Berkun (@berkun) notes on his blog, is simple: “Feedback feels like confrontation to most people. And they don’t want to risk starting a fight with you. They’ve learned many people are just fishing for praise when they ask for feedback, so that’s what they provide. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, and they want out of a dangerous conversation.”

Berkun posted his observations along with five tips that anyone can use to get better feedback. The first four have to do with the way you ask; the fifth has to do with how you listen.

1. Consider 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 [this], 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.”

2. Take care how you ask.
Ask a vague question and you get a vague answer. Instead, Belkun suggests, ask focused questions like “How can I make this better?” “What did I miss?” or “Does this design solve these three objectives?” 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.

3. Plan 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 betting feedback for yourself will be more important to them than everything they’d planned to do that day.”

4. Decide 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.”

5. Pay attention to 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).”



Hanke’s own website is a fantastic, free resource for primers on workplace communication. Our favorite is her article “This Might Be a Stupid Idea, But . . .” on how leaders often undermine their own arguments at meetings by prefacing them with qualifying statements. Six qualifiers to eliminate from your speech: “I was wondering if we might consider . . .”; “I think . . .”; “I’m probably way off base here . . .”; “To be honest with you . . .”; “I’m going to tell you a story . . .” and, of course, the title qualifier “This might be a stupid idea, but . . . .”

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