How To Get Good Feedback

If you want to improve in any area of your life, getting feedback from others is incredibly useful. I wrote previously about how uncomfortable it can be asking for feedback, and made some suggestions for making it easier.

But there’s another problem with feedback: even if you manage to overcome the discomfort and ask for it, it can be hard to actually elicit good, honest feedback from other people.

Why is it hard to get good feedback? I think there are two main reasons:


It seems weird, and people aren’t used to it

Asking for feedback isn’t something people do much, which can make it seem weird. Suddenly asking, “Do you have any constructive feedback for me?” in the middle of a conversation isn’t what most people expect. Many people might view explicitly asking for feedback as a step outside of social norms, and so feel uncomfortable about it.

Relatedly, because people rarely ask for feedback, most people aren’t used to giving it. So even if your question doesn’t put someone off by seeming odd, they might simply not know what to say.


Giving negative feedback is risky

One of the main problems with getting good feedback is that it’s really hard to get constructive feedback that’s at all negative - even though this is often the most useful. This is because giving negative feedback can be as uncomfortable as receiving it: what if you really offend the person, or they end up liking you less because of it? I think this is pretty rational: even if a person says they can take it, it’s really hard to judge how they’ll actually respond to criticism. It doesn’t seem worth the risk to the person giving the feedback: there’s very little potential benefit to them, and a big potential cost.


This suggests two main barriers to getting feedback: the weirdness-barrier (asking for feedback seems weird to a lot of people) and the negativity-barrier (it’s hard to give negative feedback). What might you do to overcome these barriers?


Overcoming the weirdness barrier

My main strategy so far for avoiding weirdness responses has been pretty simple: I mostly seek feedback from people who I know won’t find it weird. This means mostly asking for feedback from people I’m really close to, or people I know have a certain attitude towards feedback. This is at least a good first step: start by asking for feedback from the people less likely to react aversely to the idea. For example, find a close friend who is also interested in getting feedback, and practice asking each other questions - whilst also giving each other feedback on how you’re asking for and responding to feedback!

However, there are also likely to be situations in which you want feedback but aren’t sure whether it’s socially acceptable to ask for it. You might want feedback from your boss, for example, or you might be unsure how you came across to someone you just met. (Getting feedback on first impressions seems incredibly valuable to me, but probably one of the most difficult cases - both in terms of asking and giving!) I think there are some ways of framing what you ask that make it seem less weird:

  • Preface the question with an explanation of what you’re doing and why: something like, “This might seem a bit strange, but I’m trying to get more feedback from people on this thing - would you mind if I asked you for your thoughts on it?”

  • Ask for specific, not general, feedback: e.g. “How do you think I came across in that interaction?” - this seems less weird, and is easier to respond to, than “Do you have any suggestions for how I could improve as a person?”

  • Start small, and pay attention to how the other person is responding: asking for feedback about small or non-personal things is much less likely to seem weird than asking for feedback on general personality traits. So you might start by asking something like “How do you think I could improve my posture?” or “What do you think of my writing here?”, and if the other person seems comfortable giving feedback, you can build up to more personal things from there.


Overcoming the negativity barrier

Even if you genuinely want negative feedback, getting it can be really hard: it’s risky for the giver, and there’s not much benefit for them to outweigh the potential cost.

To make it easier to get negative feedback, you therefore need to convince them there’s no risk of you responding badly to them, or give them some incentive to give you honest feedback.

One way to reduce the risk to the other person is to allow people to give you feedback anonymously. This is what I did when I sent out that email: I asked for feedback in a google form which had the option of giving your name, but was otherwise anonymous. There’s also a nice website called Admonymous which allows you to set up a form through which people can give you anonymous feedback - I know a few people who put this in their email signature with a request for feedback (come to think of it, I should really do this...). Asking for feedback over email rather than in person can also help as it’s less likely to put someone on the spot, and gives them more time to rehearse their responses.

Explicitly asking for both positive and negative feedback can also help: it’s much easier to give negative feedback if you’ve just said something positive too.

Another idea would be to pair up with a friend who is also interested in receiving constructive feedback, and take turns in giving each other both positive and negative feedback. This produces some incentive to give constructive/negative feedback: if I only give you positive feedback, you’re pretty unlikely to say anything remotely negative to me in return. So if I want to receive constructive feedback, I’m going to have to give it. This also might make it seem less risky giving negative feedback, as we’re more “even”.

If you do these kinds of feedback sessions repeatedly with the same people, you’ll also hopefully begin to build up an element of trust: trust that you can say not-entirely-positive things to someone and they’re not going to get upset or steer clear of you in future. Again, starting with small, less personal questions, and building up to more potentially difficult areas, can help to build up a sense of trust and make both parties more comfortable.


To sum up: getting honest feedback from people can be really difficult. Some suggestions for how to get better feedback:

  • Find feedback buddies: other people who are interested in receiving feedback, and practice giving and asking for feedback both ways, as well as giving each other meta-feedback

  • If asking for feedback more out of the blue, preface questions with an explanation of what you’re looking for and why

  • Questions about specific things are generally easier to answer than asking for general things

  • Start with small, less personal questions, and build up to more personal areas

  • Making anonymous feedback an option makes it more likely people will tell you things they might feel uncomfortable saying in person

  • Explicitly ask for both positive and negative feedback