Yes Man Cartoon

Asking for feedback is tricky business. It does not matter if you are asking for feedback from a friend on your draft wedding toast or asking employees for feedback on your management style; most people would rather tell you what you want to hear than give you an opinion that may offend you. To get around this problem, reframe your questions to skip over asking whether improvement is needed and jump straight to asking for solutions.

This method is best explained by example.  Imagine you are practicing a wedding toast in front of a friend. You might be tempted to ask:

  • Is my toast too long?
  • Are my jokes funny?
  • Are the stories inappropriate?

These yes/no questions make it too easy for your listener to tell you want you want to hear rather than provide good, honest feedback. Instead, consider asking the questions this way:

  • My toast feels too long–what can I cut without weakening the story?
  • Which of my jokes are the funniest and which are the weakest? How can I cut the weakest jokes out and still maintain the story?
  • I am worried about offending older people in the audience–how can I clean it up without losing the punchline?

These questions all presuppose that your toast needs improvement in each of the areas, which relieves your friend of having to agree or disagree with the “judgement” that your toast has weaknesses. As a result, the questions are far more likely to generate rich, constructive suggestions.

Similarly, in the management context, do not ask an employee:

  • Am I an approachable boss?
  • Am I micromanaging?
  • Do I give clear direction?

Instead, ask:

  • How can I be more approachable?
  • I want to identify where I have been micromanaging–can you help identify areas where I tend to micromanage? 
  • I am concerned I do not always give clear instructions–can you help me think through some examples where I can improve?

You might be thinking that this approach could backfire if your style is already ideal, because the suggestions you receive back may be unnecessary or cause you to overcorrect. But keep three things in mind before you overlook this opportunity for self-improvement.  First, everyone has room for improvement, and even if your critic is not the most articulate, be open-minded enough to see the kernel of truth in every criticism. Second, you can easily separate major improvement areas from minor ones by asking a range of questions to your chosen critic. (Hint: the more eager the person is with answers to your questions on a particular issue, the more likely the issue requires improvement.) Finally, remember that the problem of “too much feedback” is far better than the problem of having “too little.”  By using this method, you will open yourself up to rich feedback and can make great strides with minimal concern for overcorrection.

Whether in your personal or professional life, even those closest to you may have great difficulty being objective in their feedback.  By carefully framing the question to avoid asking for their judgement, and instead, asking for their suggested solutions, you can ensure you get constructive feedback every time.