Oxford English Dictionary defines feedback as advice, criticism or information about how good or useful something or somebody’s work is.
Personally, I’d add to this definition the qualifiers at this moment and from the point of view of the person giving feedback. Very few, if any, of us are able to provide totally objective information about how good or useful something or somebody’s work is. Instead, all of us can give a truthful evaluation about how good or useful something or somebody’s work seems to us at the moment of asking.
When we talk about feedback, we often focus on the skills related to giving and receiving it. How can you provide constructive feedback? How do you receive it gracefully? However, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, stress that a crucial part of the ability to receive feedback is being proactive, that is to say, the ability to ask for feedback: ask for feedback to get better feedback.
Ask for feedback on a limited number of things
We don’t have unlimited resources at our disposal. Focusing on challenges and areas for development steals a large chunk of them. Additionally, our limited ability to focus guarantees that we can keep only a handful of things at a time in our minds.
That’s why it pays off to choose only one or two things at a time and focus on developing them. Then our focus isn’t divided between too many things, and the number of things to work on doesn’t feel hopelessly large. We know from experience that small changes and projects are easier to get done than large-scale changes to your whole life.
For example, if you should work on expressing yourself and someone’s given you feedback that you should spend a little time improving your communication skills, you may (as if by obligation) come to a familiar decision: “From now on, I simply must express myself in a friendly and sensitive manner and take into account other people’s opinions, even the ridiculous ones.” An admirable decision, but a huge one, and difficult to put into practice all at once.
If you instead divide the task into smaller bits, you can begin for example with emails. When writing an email, you have time to think and consider (and even ask someone else to comment on your phrasing). So if your first goal is to develop your email writing in a more constructive and friendly direction, it’s useful to ask feedback on that specifically. When writing emails starts to feel easy, you can move on to one-on-one conversations, customer meetings, team retrospectives and eventually conflicts, for example.
Ask for feedback on the thing you want to work on
In addition to choosing a small and clearly defined goal being useful, it’s also good to think about what you truly want to – and can – improve in. All of us have many things that we could be better at. Some of them are more easy to learn, some extremely challenging and deeply rooted characteristics or ways of acting. Some areas for development are very central and they have a large effect on our work or relationships. Some of them don’t have much of an effect, and that’s why it’s better to focus your attention and resources elsewhere.
If we don’t choose the thing to work on ourselves and ask feedback about it, we will get feedback about anything and everything. If we get a lot of unsolicited feedback about the things it’s hard to improve in, it’s easy to fall into despair. That’s why it’s important to consider not only the amount and size of the things to work on, but also the order – start with something small and feasible, but important.
Make very specific requests for feedback
When you’ve picked a thing or two to work on, it’s time to ask for feedback. It’s very hard to improve without feedback and especially without constructive, specific feedback. If we get told that we ”should work a bit on communication skills”, that’s a tall order. Work on how? In what direction? When?
So, it’s a good idea to ask for specific advice, more exact wishes and clearer directions. Heen and Stone write that there are three types of feedback: thanks, evaluation and coaching. Ask for coaching. Ask many different people for opinions, ideas and help for how you get good at something. Specifically, ask people who already can do what you’d like to learn.
When asking for feedback, it pays off to be as specific as possible. “I’ve got feedback that I should work on my self-expression, and I’ve decided to start with email writing. What about my email communications needs work? How could I be more professional and friendlier? What about my emails makes them feel harsh or impolite? What could I do differently? What kind of tips or advice could you give me?”
This type of request for feedback is easier to respond to than a general “How could I communicate better?”, although that also usually gives you responses, because people often have opinions on how other people act. However, the responses reflect the preferences and opinions of the feedback-givers themselves and don’t necessarily help you get closer to your goal. The more precise feedback we ask for, the more closely the feedback helps us to work on the thing that we want to work on. It’s also easier to receive because we can already expect, or downright wish for, knowledgeable and clear-eyed feedback.
Clear definitions and asking for help
Finally, let us note that choosing a clearly defined thing to work on also helps us to seek for information, tips and ideas. When you go into the wonderful world of the internet to look for ideas or content, “how to write a friendly email” is more likely to net you a high-quality and concrete response than “how to communicate better”. It’s also easier to evaluate how useful trainings, videos, webinars, online courses, books and other materials might be for you when you know more precisely what you wish for and need.
On the other hand, you can also look for help in how to narrow down your goal. If you haven’t the faintest clue where you should begin or how you can divide a larger topic into smaller chunks, it’s a good idea to begin by asking for help and feedback on that. “I should work on expressing myself more constructively and in a friendlier way. Where should I begin, what should I focus on first?”
We have heaps of thought professionals, coaches and mentors, advisors and personnel psychologists, managers and team leaders and very capable colleagues who can and want to help other people to improve. It’s wise to make use of their expertise.
TL;DR: Ask for feedback yourself
- Choose one or two things at a time to focus on. Small changes and projects are easier to get done than large-scale changes to your whole life.
- Ask for feedback on those things specifically.
- Think about what you truly want to, and can, improve in.
- Ask for feedback on those things specifically.
- Ask for precise feedback. The more precise feedback you ask for, the better the feedback will serve you.
- It’s also a lot easier to respond to a precise request for feedback.
- You also get better answers to precise queries on the internet.
- You should ask for help and feedback. It’s wise to make use of other people’s expertise when trying to improve yourself.