Ambiguity kills feedback

I hear from lots of people that it’s hard to get feedback. The top five reasons I’ve gathered:

  1. They don’t have time
  2. They don’t want to hurt my feelings
  3. They weren’t paying close enough attention to give me details
  4. They’re afraid to be seen as a critic (or bitchy) (or mean)
  5. They don’t respond to my request (usually by email)

Sound familiar?  Seems right to me… why would anyone want to give you feedback with all of those great excuses?  The risks involved for people to help are pretty big because most requests for feedback involve a great deal of ambiguity.   Ambiguity means that the potential downsides to getting involved with you outweigh the benefits of helping you, and their social radar starts going off, “avoid, avoid, avoid!”

People are more likely to give you feedback if you remove ambiguity from the situation by doing two things:

1. Share your intentions. This is about being transparent, but also about being super clear.  For more on this distinction, check out John Maeda’s post at Harvardbusiness.org. What were you hoping to accomplish in the action you are asking about?  Say something like, “I was hoping to get everybody on board for this project today.  Do you think I was successful?  What worked?  What didn’t?”  This gives your feedback partner an invitation and a point of focus for a useful response. Sharing your intentions allows them to be short and sweet, and dispels fears of being out of tune with your needs, or thinking too hard, or getting bogged down in a long emotional debrief.

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

photo by Andreas Sundgren on Flickr

2. Ask for help, but be specific.  Being seen as a helpful person is good for someone’s reputation.  But according to social proof theory, people are more likely to respond if you ask them individually, in a specific way.  Otherwise, they will wait and see if someone else will give help, leaving you with no help.  Studies show that people will walk by a seriously injured person on the street simply because others are walking past him.  The ambiguity of the situation stuns them into no response.

“Is he a homeless man sleeping?”  “Is this man dead?”  “Is this man injured?” (I really can’t get involved with this!)

When the injured person breaks the pattern by pointing to a specific passer-by and saying something like, “Hey you, my leg is broken, can you call 911?”  The response rate is above 90%.  Again the source of confusion for potential helpers and their lack of response is ambiguity.  When there is not a clear call for help, people will general take cues from others around them before risking a response.  When nobody is helping, nobody will help.

Use these two tips together and you make it much easier for someone else to give you valuable feedback by removing ambiguity from the situation.

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