Feedback – 8 Tips to Get People to Tell You What You Need to Hear

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Many leaders report that when they ask for feedback, they get very little in response. It’s not because they’re perfect. More than likely, people are afraid that they won’t react well to the truth. What to do about that? You need to make it a safe and positive experience for the other person. Here’s how:

  1. Be curious. Before you start the conversation, cultivate a learning mindset. You want to get better. You can only improve if you understand what you are doing and not doing that is getting in your way or causing people pain. Ground yourself in curiosity and the desire to improve.
  2. Ask for it, and be specific. Simply asking, “Do you have any feedback for me?” is overly broad for most people. A more effective formulation is either to ask for feedback on an event: “In my presentation to the team, what is one thing I did well and one thing I could do better?” or in a particular area: “How is my delegation style working for you? What works for you and what could be better?”
  3. Listen without defense. You probably have a lot of justifications for your behavior. Save them. Really listen and be curious. Breathe. Let your colleague know you will think about what she said.
  4. Ask questions. Especially if the respondent is not accustomed to giving feedback, you will need to probe to understand. You may need to ask for a specific example, what the impact was, or whether it’s part of a larger pattern.  Remember to watch your tone when you inquire, as it may sound defensive. Try leading with, “Let me try to understand better…..”
  5. Find the need or request in the complaint. Feedback often comes in the form of a complaint about something you did or a situation that you might be contributing to. Turn it around and ask for a suggestion or request for what you might do better or differently next time.
  6. Acknowledge the critique. You don’t have to agree with what someone is saying in order to recognize it. Restating the issue both confirms your understanding and lets the other person know he has been heard. For example, you might say: “When I challenged your idea, you felt shut down.”
  7. Say thank you. Your critic has taken the risk and time to offer you insight into your performance and impact. Whether or not she did it skillfully or gracefully, thank her for shedding light on a blind spot. Even if you disagree with part or all of the critique, it is better to know than not to know.
  8. Follow up. Within a week or so of receiving the feedback, take time to follow up with the person who gave you the feedback and tell him that you have been thinking about it, ask for an opportunity to discuss further, or let him know what you are trying to do differently.

And if this doesn’t work, consider hiring a professional. A CEO client of mine periodically asks me to conduct anonymous interviews with his leadership team, board and a few junior members of the team. Then he shares his key takeaways with the team and tells them what he is working on. This is a great way to get feedback and to model gracious reception of feedback.