“The biggest problem with communication is the persistent assumption that communication has taken place.” — interpr. William H. Whyte
Communication takes many forms and is so common in our world that it’s easy to assume we do it efficiently. That cannot be further from the truth. From the perspective of a User Experience and Psychology specialist, here are the most damaging mistakes in giving or receiving feedback.
1. Not having a clear end goal in mind
You’re always running, your mind is looking to the future and thinking about what to do next. That’s why when asking for feedback, you just want to get it over with and move on. Instead of saying, “I just want to get this over with, can you approve so I can move on?” you say, “Here it is. What do you think?” A dangerous approach that breeds misunderstandings and leads to frustration. Be prepared to spend hours of your time listening to unwanted, useless feedback and be frustrated.
This is the most important thing you must do, before taking action. Before asking for feedback STOP! Stop what you’re doing and thinking. Sit down, calm down and listen to your own feelings. What do you really want to get out of the exchange? Imagine the answer you want to get most — is it praise, is it detailed explanations, or what someone else feels when they look at your work? Have a clear end goal in mind. Everything else is built around it.
2. Not taking your feelings in to account
Your current state of mind is everything, when it comes to interpretation. If you’re frustrated, angry, tired, feel underappreciated or need approval, feedback can be deadly. You get a lukewarm answer. You knew it! You are not appreciated! This is just further proof of your suspicions and feelings. You leave deflated and your whole day is ruined. The other person meanwhile feels satisfied that he made an effort to help you even though he was busy.
While you’re sitting and working on your goal, take a deep breath and do a self-check. How are you feeling? Take a few minutes to clear your mind, think of a pleasant experience. When you initiate a conversation, you must be calm and your mind clear. Focus on the goal and ignore doubt and fear. Your mind is a page to write the feedback on — make sure it’s clear and ready for the information you are seeking to gain.
3. Being shy
Sometimes, you have to get feedback from people you feel strong feelings for. Admiration, appreciation, respect or fear stand in your way. Without knowing it, you’re handicapping yourself even before a single word has left your mouth. You make sure to be nice, respectful and considerate. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Phrases like “She’s very busy.”, “He doesn’t have time.” and “This is not the best moment”, flash through your mind. When everything is said and done, you sit down, go through your feedback and realize it creates more questions than it answers. You’re now stuck with useless information, you’re anxious to ask for more and you feel guilty. This situation must never exist!
No matter what feeling influences you, get the most out of your time. When you have a clear goal and you are prepared for feedback, you must pursue it. Act and don’t stop until you have what you need. Imagine yourself as an insurance salesperson or call center worker. They never give up until they have what they need. Is the person you’re trying to talk to busy? Ask to schedule time, set reminders for you and them. Remember, the worst thing you can do, is not ask for feedback and work in the dark. So set your goal and pursue it.
4. Asking the wrong people
We lie to ourselves all the time. It’s unpleasant to realize and hard to admit. We also gravitate towards people who validate our lies. Who wants to ask the “critic” of the team when there are people who support you? You have a group you trust and everyone outside that circle, well, they’re just plain wrong. Are you seeking advice from people who have no expertise on the topic? Is it because they are easy to impress, or you want to feel inclusive? Gather your self-esteem and admit to yourself the reason why you are seeking the right feedback from the wrong people.
Again, it all comes down to your GOAL. It is the most crucial pillar of your actions. Use it to center yourself. When you have a clear goal, all you have to do is consider who can help you on the way to reaching it. You won’t ask a “critic” for moral support. You won’t ask your moral support group for criticism. You won’t ask a person from the other department for expert knowledge on your topic. It seems obvious, but are you implementing it in practice? Double-check your goals and actions, otherwise you’re wasting your time.
5. Not knowing your audience
People are complex and hard to figure out. Not only do you have to double-check yourself, you also have to try to figure out the people around you. You might rely on your superior to give you feedback and guide you in all manner of things. You may not even realize that his incompetence is driving your productivity down and your career astray. Stuck between the people who praise you and the superiors who criticize, you have to wonder whom should you listen to.
Instead of allowing your feelings to guide your judgment, sit down and list the strong points of every person. Is your boss not an expert on your craft? He must be an expert in something else. Management, self-promotion, public speaking. Remember, keep your feelings out of it! Vitriol and sarcasm are like sugar — pleasurable in the present, detrimental in future. Leave them out of it. You might be surprised to learn that you’ve been asking the wrong people about the wrong things. Make sure you are clear on what each person can contribute to your goal.
6. Asking loaded questions
The human mind is so averse to effort and preoccupied with itself, that it substitutes hard questions for easier ones all the time. You go in to a performance review with your superior. You ask, “What can I be doing better?” You get a few suggestions and both of you feel like something has been accomplished, even though nothing of value has been exchanged. You wanted to know how to lower your chance of being fired. Your superior listed things that every employee could improve at, without considering your circumstances, current skill level, company goals or average worker performance. All because for your superior, answering “Nothing. You’re already doing a great job.” felt wrong and you wanted a concrete answer to a broad question.
Questions, just like sentences, can be positively or negatively charged. You want yours to be as neutral as possible. Avoid Yes/No questions whenever you can — they limit the scope too much. Avoid questions that are too broad, like “How am I doing?”, “How can I improve”. Write down your questions in advance and try to give mock answers to them, to see if you’re limiting feedback and skewing results towards the positive or negative side.
7. Not being specific enough
Another killer of helpful feedback is the broad question. It can be interpreted in any way, based on the current weather, what someone ate for breakfast or what movie is playing in the theaters this week. When you ask someone “Do I look good in this dress?”, “Am I being too harsh?” or “How can I improve?”, you’re asking for trouble. If you then take the answer to heart and act on it without thinking it through, disappointment and confusion is sure to follow.
Useless information taken as fact is your enemy. The more vague your question the more random the feedback you get. If you can’t come up with a detailed question, if it can have a large area of answers, break it up and specify. Take the time and effort to think your goal and steps through, then ask questions based on that. No one but you can answer the question of “What can I do better?”, but people around you can point you in the right direction. Ask “What do you think helped you be successful?”, “What is the most important trait you workers must possess?”, “Can you recommend a good book on this subject?”. Be specific and honest in asking for feedback you actually want to receive.
8. Not verifying the answer
Now you’re ready. You’re prepared. Your goals are clear, your questions ready. You ask the right people. You even write down the answers you get. You act with confidence and execute on the feedback. However, something goes wrong or you have to get clarification. You come back and do a recap, only to hear the dreaded “That’s not what I meant.” You lose trust, time, you’re frustrated and have to start over. A situation we all keep finding ourselves in over and over again.
Clarification seems unnecessary and awkward in the moment. It’s like slamming the breaks just when you gained good speed. So when you feel this, know that you’re probably moving too fast and you’re making mistakes. Slow down the pace and make sure to read back what feedback you got. Say to the person “ So you mean to say…?”, “Are you telling me to…?” Take time to think through what people are telling you. Discuss this with them in the moment. Not everyone is great at expressing his or her thoughts and feeling. Help them and yourself to get to the point. Verify your feedback.
What’s your most common and despised pitfall? Mine is “Being shy”. I often want to please people so much that I rush and skip the verification step. I later have to scramble and interpret the feedback I got. Or scrap the work I’ve done, because I was not thorough enough with my questions.
Share in the comments your feedback habits and give any useful tips you have for getting better feedback.