Scott H Young

10 Must-Have Steps to Getting Honest Feedback


Deceptive?

People are too nice. You’re worried about rejection and criticism? I think it is more important to worry about the opposite, that people aren’t giving you the honest feedback you need.

Even when most people do give criticism, it is usually worded to be as unoffending as possible, often omitting true feelings.

I’ve delivered speeches where I could tell the evaluator didn’t like my speech. But they bit their tongue and offered me mild suggestions with support. I’ve requested feedback for projects I’ve worked on, this blog and other outlets. Sure there are a few jerks that will insult everything you do and your mother at the same time, but they are a rarity in a society which preaches politeness over honesty.

Why does this happen?

I believe there are three reasons people don’t give honest feedback:

  1. They don’t want to damage relationships
  2. They want to be supportive
  3. They don’t realize they are lying to you

This “white-lie” feedback isn’t always an outright deception. If you ask for feedback or suggestions, people will offer them. But often the feedback offered will be easily fixable tips, to give the impression that everything else is okay and you just need to tweak the details. When there can be more difficult problems that get completely ignored.

Other times the sentiment is correct but the intensity isn’t. People will gush about how they loved it, when they just liked it mildly. Love and like may not matter if your working on a hobby but in any pursuit you care about results, love and like mean a helluva lot.

So how do you actually get honest feedback?

  1. Accept Criticism - All of It. Yeah, getting a harsh review sucks. But I can take that temporary sting if it means I am given valuable tools for improvement. No, not all criticisms are useful nor should you bend to all of them. But if you cast yourself as a person who can take all forms of criticism without returning hate, you are more likely to get it when you need it.
  2. Ask the Right Questions. Even if you ask people to be brutal with feedback, most still won’t. Don’t blame them, they have been conditioned by society to take your emotional state into consideration. Ask the right questions so you can get honest answers even in the veil of white lies. Good examples:
    • What do you hate most about (my performance/product/etc.)? <- Force honesty by leaving no room for sugarcoating.
    • What is this missing to become great instead of just good? <- Assuming they gave you initial positivity, push a little harder.
    • Will you buy it? <- Separate the love from the like by asking for a purchase.
  3. Read Between Lines. Look for what they didn’t say, not what they did. I’ll admit this can take practice, but when you receive feedback where you question the sincerity, notice what wasn’t said. If you wrote a how-to book, did they actually use the advice? If you gave a persuasive speech did they enjoy it or did it change their opinion?
  4. Pull Out Gradual Honesty. Some people need encouragement to give you their honest opinion. Make it clear that you are okay with the harshest of their remarks and give them an opportunity to reveal more.
  5. The Faceless Net. Post your ideas on forums. Forums are a great way to receive honest feedback because there isn’t face-to-face interaction. If people don’t like you, they’ll say so. Will they give your ideas a fair chance? Probably not. They will rip into them will all their bias and judgement. That’s good, it’s exactly what the world will do. You might as well prepare.
  6. Develop Trust. Cultivate honest feedback with a few mentors or friends. Slowly condition them to give you the truth even when it hurts you by demonstrating it will strengthen, not damage, the bond.
  7. Give ‘em the Whole Story. Break down your need for complete honesty to the other person. Explain how you’ve noticed feedback not matching up with results, so you want the other person to be as candid as possible, even if it sounds rude.
  8. Ask For Action. Ask them to buy, recommend or promote it. If they aren’t willing to do that, they probably think it is good, not great.
  9. Find Simon’s. Seek out people that you know will give complete honesty.
  10. Test Results, Not Feedback. The best feedback comes from the world. Test your actual results rather than relying on advice. Want to know whether your writing is good? Start a blog or publish a novel. Want to know whether your product is good? Start selling a prototype in limited quantities.

You have two options. Look for praise or look for honesty. Neither is wrong, but they have different outcomes. Praise will make you feel good when results aren’t important. Who cares if your art sells if it’s just a hobby? But when results matter, look for honesty. Despite it’s ego-crushing and painful blows it will teach you.


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17 Responses to “10 Must-Have Steps to Getting Honest Feedback”

  1. Brilliant post, Scott. I think it’s very valuable for students as well, so I’ll post it on my blog as well.

    Another way of ensuring honest relationships is by being totally honest yourself as well. When done properly, you will

    a) convey that you are someone they can trust
    b) show them that constructive criticism is important to you

    Do it in a way that you let them know you just want to help, not find fault. That way you’ll avoid them criticizing you just for the heck of it, not because you’re product or presentation (or whatever) is bad.

  2. JohnPlace says:

    Truly excellent tips, Scott. In keeping with the theme of this article, I almost wish I had some unpleasant criticism to share, but a’las, I do not. Honest feedback is extremely important, especially when your trying to sell something.

    As you mention, people will vote with their wallets even if they won’t vote with their voices, so it’s better to obtain real honesty before your product ever hits the shelves.

  3. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments John and Arjun!

  4. Brenton Scott says:

    Great post, I agree that we all should give honest feedback.

    They’ll just be worse off when they discover you lied about it, costing them thousands of dollars in the process and in the end they’ll blame you for the whole mess.

    I have noticed some people avoid me when I give my opinion on something or try and break me down because I’m honest about it.
    I guess when everybody tries to save your feelings by telling you what you want to hear it’s harder to accept the truth from the few that care enough to tell you the truth.

    I found tell it like I precieve it does lose me some friends, but gained me the trust of so many others. Sometimes being honest is hard, but in the end it’s for all parties involved :)

  5. ZHereford says:

    Exceptional article Scott, however, few people have the courage you do to hear honest feedback.
    I’m like you, I prefer honesty to sugar coating. It’s the best way to learn and make the necessary adjustments.
    As long as people know the difference between honesty and are not being vindictive or unnecessarily cruel, I’m all for – all out, let me have it feedback.

  6. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comment ZHereford.

  7. [...] 10 Must-Have Steps to Getting Honest Feedback – Useful tips to getting good feedback. Very useful during the editing process. [...]

  8. [...] Related Reading : Scott Young’s 1o Steps to Honest Feedback Related PostsFriends Matter: Support And Education Through FriendshipsFriends Matter : Social Networks Shape Our PerceptionOur time is not our own……but it can beHaving Goals Is Great, But Having Purpose Is BetterBudgeted Time Flows Towards Your Strengths [...]

  9. pHysiX says:

    true true…I personally rather people say it to my face than say it behind my back.

    I guess it’s up to how people take the comments. I mean, someone could say “You suck” in a very aggressive way and the receiver would feel very offended.

    Nice post. Made me realise some new things. Keep it up

  10. Most people do not give honest criticism because they want to be considered “nice” so they will knowingly “lie” to not deface their own self-image of what they consider to be “nice”. I prefer honesty. With honesty, I know where I stand and what you think I need to improve. Then I honestly look at what you told me and decide if I need to or want to change. I can’t change what needs to be changed, if I don’t know about it. Patricia

  11. Scott Young says:

    Patricia,

    This may sound odd, but I don’t recommend being brutally honest to others even though you expect it yourself. Few people are mature enough to handle the truth without a little bit of encouragement, so I only offer harsh opinions to those who explicitly ask for it.

    For all the people who have transcended their egoic compulsions (or can at least keep them in check) then honesty is a good policy, but I think this is one area where the Golden Rule doesn’t quite align.

  12. Jason says:

    While you may want to avoid the brutal, you should still stick with the honest. In other words, don’t pull the same tricks mentioned above… don’t tell someone you love it when you really just think it’s okay, etc.

    Also, speaking of the golden rule, although you didn’t mention it, if you want honest feedback, you need to give it, too. Although you may want harsher feedback than the other person does, you still need to be honest in your feedback, and if they can’t take it, then whatever relationship you have with the person may not be worth the time and energy invested in it in the first place.

    Matter of fact, now that I think about it, there’s never a need for brutal honesty. You can always be completely honest without being brutal. I can point out five things wrong with your writing (Not Scott Young, I mean the general “you”) without even implying that you are bad at writing, or especially that you’re so bad that you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. Anywhere you feel like you can’t be open and honest, you should think twice about whether you want to be there at all.

  13. Scott Young says:

    Jason,

    I agree. You can have both honesty and tact. I’d rather have honesty from someone than tact, but I strive to deliver both in my feedback.

    -Scott

  14. [...] from Leo of ZenHabits, this time about how to give kind criticism. When I wrote my article about how to get honest feedback, many people took that as a sign that I approved of giving brutal honesty to [...]

  15. Stavo says:

    Outstanding piece of writting. Honest feedback is useful and effective in a resolution process to achieve or maintain improvement in any process. Without honest feedback an opportunity to improve is lost.

    Point 6 is very important. Without trust people wont open up and will probably tell you what you want to here. Progressive leaders will encourage feedback and absorbs the pain even when it hurts motivated by the need to improve and do better.

  16. [...] When you respond fast in every case, even if the answer is “can you send me more information, it will help me to give you the right answer” or “sorry, I can’t help you” you solidify your reputation as a trustworthy person who can be relied upon for timely follow up and honest feedback. [...]

  17. [...] of that success you will get, but more importantly understand the value of practicing, getting feedback, practicing more and really giving everything you do your all.  One of the greatest things I have [...]

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