A month ago, I was preparing to interview Sheila Heen for a segment on my show. Sheila is the co-author of the bestselling book Difficult Conversations (affiliate), and we were speaking about her new book Thanks for the Feedback (affiliate). While reviewing the book, I came across a bit of wisdom that’s worked wonders.
Like many people, anytime I provide something for a client or other group, I always seek to improve. As such, for years I’ve often asked a variation of this question:
Do you have any feedback for me?
And I almost always get a variation of the following responses:
- “I liked everything.”
- “No, nothing. Thanks so much for doing this.”
- “Can’t think of anything. It was good.”
I never believed that I was always hitting it out of the park (and thankfully received enough feedback from colleagues to prove it). So, why wouldn’t the people whose opinion matters most (the customer) ever provide better feedback?
My dialogue with Sheila made two reasons apparent:
- Most of us make giving feedback too hard
- It’s not clear we really want the feedback
When I put myself in the shoes of the person being asked, the “do you have any feedback?” question is often one I’m not prepared for. Sometimes I have a lot of feedback and I don’t know where I would even start. What if they aren’t really ready for criticism and I harm the relationship? Occasionally, I wonder if they are fishing for a compliment.
Even if I know what to say, it takes time. It’s a lot easier to just give a generic answer to a generic question.
That’s why when I saw this question in Sheila’s book, I knew I would try it:
What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?
This is a better question because it’s simple to identify one thing, clear that the asker is not fishing for compliments, and provides a framework for a short, specific response.
In the past month, I’ve asked this question on at least four different occasions in varied professional situations. Three of the four times, I’ve received specific feedback on how to improve. Moreover, the feedback was specific and actionable. In one case, someone who’s always given a generic response in the past suddenly had a valuable tip for me.
It turns out that I was just asking the wrong question, all along.
[reminder]What have you discovered by asking this question: “What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?”[/reminder]