Focus your feedback

There’s one thing I’ve found that separates good feedback from bad.  Really!  Just one: more focused questions generate higher quality responses. Usually you get dead air and blank stares when you ask a generic question like, “Does anyone have any feedback for me?” The typical response, “Uh, fine… uh, really great… yeah, good job!”

Typical response to a generic request for feedback. From: photo.net/photos/zbbrox

It’s a lot of work to give someone good feedback, and most people simply aren’t prepared when you spring it on them like that. Remember, the burden of gathering feedback falls on you, not the provider. So make it easier for others to help you out by asking more focused questions. After you ask a focused question, behave like a curious four-year-old and ask, “Why, why, why, why?” to get underneath surface level generalities to real opinions that help you grow.

Of course if you really don’t want to know how you can grow, and are just asking so you can say you did, you need to return to GO (do not collect your $200) and start over with why it’s important to get feedback in the first place.  See more on that in my post Get Some Grit. Don’t waste your time (or other people’s energy) by asking generic, open ended questions. They don’t work.  For more on why, see my post Ambiguity kills feedback.

Here are some tips for getting focused feedback:

Focused questions generate more complex (valuable) answers

1. Use good manners:
Be curious, persistent, patient, and grateful.  Feedback is a gift, but you have to wrap it yourself.  When you ask one question, follow it up with a deeper, probing question to help the person in his/her thinking.  Something like: “Thanks for that. Do you think if I try that next time I’ll get better results?”  Followed by, “Okay, sounds good.  Has that worked for you?”

2. Focus on priority and purpose:
Ask high level questions that help you determine if you are working on the right things.  For example: “If I do these three things well, do you think I’ll be successful?  Or: “Which of these five things would you do first?”

3. Seek advice before you act:
Sometimes it’s easier to give an opinion before an action has occurred because there’s no implication of judgment. Use questions like, “How would you approach this project?” After you gather advice from several perspectives, review for patterns of agreement and disagreement. Follow up with another round of questions to get advice on the patterns you’ve found.  “I have two opposing ideas on how to approach this.  Which one do you like better?”

4. Invite critique on approach and impact:
Cue feedback by asking for direct opinions that leave no room for one word replies. Bad: Do you like this? Better: How could this presentation be more clear? Best: On slide three, how could I present this concept better?  For critique on the value of your efforts, ask about your impact on the person, team, or organization.  Questions like: “Was my contribution what you expected?”  “How could I have helped our team accomplish more?”  Or, “What could I have done to increase our results by 10%”

5. Cross-pollinate good ideas: Share what someone else has told you to jump-start their thinking and generate discussion.  “I was talking with Dave about this and he said…”  This helps the person you ask learn something about another colleague too.

Final thought: even when you ask a very precise opening question, you are still likely to get a simple answer.  Successful learners ask several polite follow up questions to help those around them warm up to their situation and be more helpful.  Don’t be satisfied with someone’s first answer.