Ask better questions

Ask these questions to help you get the feedback you want and need.

Getting feedback about who we are and what we do is the surest way to improve. Most people would agree it’s necessary. A recent BetterUp survey found that 65% of employees want more feedback, even though they acknowledge it may be difficult to receive. Then again, the feedback we receive from managers and loved ones may not arrive in time or hit the mark — assuming it’s delivered at all.

Asking for feedback can help. Instead of waiting for feedback, we can elicit the information we need on our own terms and timeline. But the way we ask for feedback matters, too. Unless we ask the right questions, we’re unlikely to get meaningful insights about how we can do better.

To make the most of a feedback request, try tailoring your questions to your specific needs. You may be in search of clarity. Or a deeper understanding of issues. You might just want a high-level picture of performance. The most effective questions are phrased and presented with these goals in mind.

Gain clarity with “light bulb” questions

When information that’s shared with us isn’t clear, we tend to make assumptions and fill in the gaps ourselves. “Light bulb” questions can help us better understand what the feedback really means — and what it means for us. They can help uncover the real intent behind what is said and sharpen our sense of where it points.

Some examples of light bulb questions include:

  • Can you tell me more?
  • Why do you say that?
  • Is this something you’ve noticed often?

Use a light bulb question any time you need to clarify the meaning of a statement, understand the rationale behind a rating or grasp the finer points of an appraisal. Unless we make sense of the message, we can’t fully comprehend its meaning.

Go deeper with “funnel” questions

Once we begin to appreciate the feedback giver’s intent, it’s time to go deeper with “funnel” questions. Funnel questions allow us to better understand how decisions were reached and to respectfully challenge the assumptions behind them. They provide an opportunity to drill down to feedback’s core.

Some examples of funnel questions are:

  • Can you explain how you reached this conclusion?
  • Can you help me understand your reasoning?
  • What’s driving this issue?

Use a funnel question any time you are seeking a detailed analysis of feedback, especially if it’s tied to a performance review. But be selective about which parts of feedback you want to unearth. Pushing the feedback giver too hard for his or her rationale may be received unfavorably.

Grasp the big picture with “chair lift” questions

Good feedback finds a way to stay grounded and goal-oriented. It addresses current challenges but maps out future possibilities. For optimal positioning, consider asking “chair lift” questions. These questions raise feedback to a higher level where we can expand our view of causes, connections and consequences. They allow us to look at events as if we’re seeing them through a panorama, not a peephole.

Some examples of chair lift questions are:

  • What issues haven’t we considered yet?
  • Are we addressing the right goals?
  • Have we considered what the implications of this might be?

Use a chair lift question whenever you’re trying to set a broader context for feedback, establish long-term growth goals, or refine your performance targets. This over-the-horizon approach allows us to shift the feedback dynamic from the past to the future.

We shouldn’t have to wait to get the feedback we need. By asking the right questions at the right moment, we can generate powerful insights about our work and build our capacity for growth. Better feedback begins with better questions.

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