Bad feedback? Blame the question.

Asking the right question can improve the feedback you get.

At its core, feedback is designed to help us do better. But what if we don’t feel better off after getting it? There can be many reasons why feedback falls flat — poor timing, sloppy form, hazy intent, to name just a few. But over the years, I’ve noticed that a fatal flaw in many feedback conversations isn’t the response.

It’s the question.

The way we phrase our questions can greatly influence the quality and usefulness of the feedback we receive. If we don’t align our ask, there’s a good chance any feedback we get will miss its mark. The good news is that we can transform our questions with just a few tweaks in our approach. Here are some of my favorite “questionable questions” – and ways we can make them better.  

“Yes or no” questions

Close-ended questions that can be answered in just one word often create a feedback stranglehold. Not only do they limit the kind of information we can receive, but they cut off the possibility for depth and dialogue. True, some feedback requests don’t need more than a simple response. But for any sort of evaluative or developmental feedback that demands context and nuance, “yes or no” questions rarely provide us with the insights we need.

Here are useful alternatives to “yes and no” questions:

  • How did my presentation sound to you?
  • What are your thoughts on my proposal?
  • How did I come across to you during our meeting today?

Each of these questions create more room and possibility for a two-way exchange where feedback moves freely.

“Backwards” questions

“Backwards” questions are questions that focus on the past and often ask for explanations, justifications, or reasons for past events or decisions. When we ask for feedback using a backwards question, we point others towards a moment in time that can’t be changed or controlled — which all but guarantees that the feedback won’t be actionable.

Rather than ask why something occurred, frame your question with a forward-facing inquiry:

  • What’s one thing I can do to improve my client interactions?
  • Can you share ways you’ve managed to deal with difficult team members?
  • Where could I learn more about this practice?

By shifting the focus from the past to the future and from blame to contribution, we can orient others to provide feedback that’s focused, relevant and within our ability to control.

“Imposter” questions

Perhaps the most sneaky and stubborn all, “imposter” questions are more like statements in disguise. They can unintentionally bias or influence the responses we receive when seeking feedback. Their goal is affirmation, not information. And they rarely produce a substantive, honest response. “…Don’t you think?” is the surest way to get others not to think about ways to help us.

We can unmask these imposters by asking questions that are framed with curiosity, not certainty:

  • Can you suggest ways I can strengthen this pitch?
  • Where can I find additional support to help me resolve this issue?
  • What do you see as my biggest growth opportunity right now?

We can’t expect others to guide us if we don’t provide them with clear directions. Asking for feedback is part art, part smarts. By asking the right questions in the right way, we’ll get the feedback we need to succeed.

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