Give It To Me Straight – 11 Tips for Better Feedback

Feedback usually has little or no bearing on quality. Every person has a different style of giving advice. That style doesn’t usually change much whether they think you are almost perfect or downright horrible. When you ask for feedback, what you hear says a lot more about the other persons “feedback style” than your inquiry.

This can be an incredibly frustrating aspect of trying to improve. Whether you are trying to write a best selling novel or just get a date, you have to rely on feedback. But instead of useful suggestions you tend to get one of several feedback styles:

  1. The Hater – This person will find fault with everything you do. Even if she feels the job is almost perfect, she will complain. Impressing this person is almost impossible. Luckily, haters are relatively rare because nobody can stand them!
  2. The Always Nice – This person will never give negative feedback. Everything is super and you can’t possibly be faulted. Sometimes you attract “The Always Nice” through past successes, at which point no one dares question your competency. Other times this person simply doesn’t want to offend.
  3. The Nitpicker – Not entirely positive, not entirely negative, but completely useless. He will find completely irrelevant things to criticize while missing the big picture. This is the guy who says the colors of the buttons for your prototype product should be blue, not red.
  4. The Sandwicher – Trained in the trusty management “sandwich” technique for giving feedback, she will give any criticisms with a buffer of compliments on each side. This may leave you feeling good, but it can take the bite out of harsh feedback that needs to be harsh.
  5. The Grudgebearer – This is someone who has felt personally attacked by you in the past. As a result his feedback will always be biased to reassert his self-esteem. An employee you criticized for something minor may lash out with a scathing personal review of yourself.
  6. The Gentle Touch – Probably the best, this person will point you to areas of growth, without crushing your self-esteem. She strikes a rare balance between effectiveness and compassion. This person will make your medicine easier to swallow without taking away the benefits.

How You Can Find “Truth” Behind the Feedback

You want honesty right? A scathing piece of criticism may not feel good, but you need it. Finding the truth behind feedback takes effort. Sorting away irrelevant criticisms and focusing on bigger truths is more an art than a science.

  1. Develop Trust – Honesty can only thrive in a relationship where the other participant knows what to expect. If you aren’t sure how someone will take criticism, you will dilute it. By demonstrating that hard punches strengthen the relationship rather than damaging it, people will be more willing to give you an honest answer.
  2. Look for Trends – One opinion isn’t worth much. People are horrible at separating big from small issues when giving feedback. If one person says your writing style is too long, that isn’t an issue. If six people do, maybe you need to be more concise.
  3. Ignore Intensity – Don’t over-respond to a particularly intense piece of criticism. Three people who give a minor suggestion are worth more than one person who gives a scathing review. Look for consistency of feedback, not the emotional charge it was given with.
  4. Remove the Sugarcoating – You don’t need the empty calories. Go over the feedback you’ve been given. Remove all the sentences that gush positively or attempt to soften the blow. They may protect your emotions, but they contain no useful information in themselves.
  5. Never Lash Back – Honesty won’t exist if you have a bad temper. If you can’t take feedback, people won’t give it to you. Learn to smile in the face of a harsh blow and people will be honest with you later.
  6. Ignore the Ignorant – Don’t listen to people who haven’t given your inquiry much thought. On The Today Show, Donny Deutsch was interviewed with Tim Ferriss of the 4-Hour Workweek. During the entire interview Donny criticized Tim from what appeared to be a gut reaction to the title. Donny is a smart guy, but without actually reading the book and seeing that it wasn’t really about the hours, he couldn’t offer accurate feedback.
  7. Stop the Arrogance – Being arrogant and dismissing feedback from people who don’t know as much as you doesn’t help. Even opinions that don’t come from your level of expertise should be considered.
  8. Ask the Right Questions – Word your questions to get to the truth without forcing people to hurt you. By loading your questions you can eliminate the need for people to spare your feelings. Here’s a few examples:
    • “If there was one thing you had to criticize, what would it be?”
    • “What do you feel the biggest weakness in my presentation was?”
    • “What is the one thing that could move this from being just good, to great?”
  9. Watch Body Language – Look past the words and see the non-verbal communication. It will usually betray a subtler honesty than the person may be willing to admit. Gauge the persons emotional state and look for small reactions.
  10. Probe – When someone offers a vague piece of feedback, dive into it. A small nag from a family member could underlie a deeper problem. Gently guide the person to reveal their true feelings.
  11. Don’t Expect Creativity – Feedback only gives surface problems. The problems people don’t even realize they have are buried far deeper. A small criticism of the products interface won’t show you how to redo the product to remove most the interface entirely. Use feedback as a crude guide, not a flawless map of the terrain.

This article is an expansion an earlier article on getting honest feedback I wrote here: 10 Must-Have Steps for Honest Feedback