When Feedback Is Anything But

There’s no doubt about it; one of the best ways to get better at something is to simply ask for feedback.  How do we get better without feedback from others?  Feedback provides invaluable information we can’t see for ourselves.  Feedback helps us evolve.  Feedback nourishes our imagination.

There, I said it.  Tell all your friends that feedback is good.  We can all go home now.  Nothing to see here… or is there?

I remember years ago, my brother Jeff came to me with great excitement about a car purchase.  He told me all about this car that he was so thrilled with. Having spent some time consulting for the car industry, I had a few opinions about that car myself, but before I offered my opinion, I asked him one, simple question:  “Have you purchased it yet?”  With a big smile, he told me, “I sure have!  What do you think of it?”  With a matching big smile, I told him, “I love that car!”

I’m guessing that some of you aren’t impressed with my response, but take a moment and think about it: What would have been the value in telling him, “Oh, I’ve heard about those cars; they aren’t dependable, and they lose value quicker than most cars, and I’d never buy that car… but congratulations!”

I watch this play out with my wife from time-to-time. She is an artist, and when she’s creating a piece she genuinely wants feedback about, she’ll ask for it. She really wants a different perspective and another set of eyes on her pieces, so she’ll hold it up in front of a mirror so she can see her work from a different viewpoint.  However, once that piece has been completed, framed, and hung for others to see it, she’s not really looking for another critique.

I know we don’t mean to harm others with our feedback, but we often do.  I suppose the problem is created by a modest question we ask when we have completed our work.  That question is this: “What do you think?”  For those who are asking that question, the question we mean to be asking is, “What do you like about this work I’ve completed?” Unfortunately, that question is a little too awkward to ask, so we inadvertently open ourselves up to a question with far more damaging consequences.

I’m certainly not immune to this feedback syndrome.  Many times, after I’ve spent hours preparing for, and given every ounce of energy I have for a presentation, I’ve stepped off the stage soaked in sweat and been greeted by a goodhearted colleague with, “Nice job! If only you hadn’t mishandled that one question you got near the end.”  Funny, this type of feedback rarely comes from an audience member, and almost always from a well-meaning coworker.

It’s an awkward moment when others are offering feedback, and you really want to say: “Gee, not that kind of feedback, please!”  Who gets better at what he or she does without honest feedback that balances the positives and the negatives? It’s important to remember, though, that not everyone actually wants your feedback.  Before you take the bait from someone who appears to want your feedback, consider these two questions:

  1. When is this question being asked? If a person has already bought their car, or an artist has already created that work of art, or a speaker who has already stepped off that stage, why would you want to greet them with negative feedback to a situation that cannot be changed?
  2. What is your relationship to the person you are giving feedback to? I’ve had people who have never written a book or an article, come up to me at book signings and offer their criticism and even alert me to a typo buried deep in the manuscript.  For the record, despite edits and re-edits, legal reads, and copy writer reads, almost no book is free from a typo or two.  The book is in print – do you really think that’s what an author wants to hear while signing your book?  Not this one!

Again, this really isn’t solely the fault of those who are offering feedback. Consider your timing, and your relationship. Sometimes when we ask for feedback, we are actually asking for something far different.  We want your appreciation.  We want your praise.  We want your approval.  Let’s let those who ask, “What did you think?” bask in the glory of their moment while experiencing the compassion of others. If your negative feedback is really that vital to their long-term success, take a deep breath, and wait for another time to deliver it.

Related: Want To Fix The Sales World?