A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.
Giving and receiving feedback can be fraught.
Sometimes we just want to vent or think out loud. Other times we ask for feedback when what we really want is affirmation. Or, when feedback really backfires, someone’s “constructive criticism” can come off as an attack.
When the goal of feedback isn’t clear, there tends to be an opportunity for conflict.
If someone requests your advice, start with the question, “What kind of feedback would be most helpful?”
People are motivated to ask for feedback because they want a thought partner, expert advisor, cheerleader, or listener. Before diving in, it’s important to know which of these roles they want you to play. The last thing you want is to be in expert advisor mode but when your partner really needs a listener.
One of my favorite things on the internet is the viral video “It’s Not About The Nail”. In it, a woman complains of a wrenching headache, which is likely the result of a 2-inch metal nail embedded in her forehead. As she complains to her boyfriend, he (understandably) thinks he can remedy her situation by removing the nail. A fight ensues because she just wants to feel heard, while he keeps trying to fix it.
A very wise friend in college used to ask his girlfriend explicitly, “Do you want me to listen, or do you want me to fix it?” before he would begin to respond. “What are you hoping to achieve with this feedback?” is the business version of that question.
Here are three examples of that question in action (or inaction):
1) A friend asked me to read her application to a fellowship. I’m an alum of the program, and she wanted feedback on overall tone, content, and specific edits down to the punctuation mark to make her application as competitive as possible. She was clearly and explicitly asking me to play the role of expert advisor.
2) A colleague sent over a video interview for me to review. I asked what she was hoping to gain from my feedback, and I learned that she was feeling self-critical about her responses and wanted perspective about whether her own analysis was accurate. While there was some cheerleading involved, she was also looking for a thought partner to strategize on how to improve moving forward.
The footage she sent was the finish product, so had I suggested video edits or ways she could re-record, it would have frustrated us both – it would have been an inefficient use of my time, and it wouldn't have served either of her goals.
Because we had clearly identified her priorities, I was able to provide what she needed. As she put it, my feedback was very practical and digestible.
3) A dear friend asked if he could share the logo for his new podcast. Without asking the question above, I shared what I liked first and then started to make a few small suggestions on how to improve it. Like example #2, it turns out, what he sent was the finished product. Oops.
Had I asked him first what he kind of feedback was most useful, I would have learned that he was looking for an up-down-vote, not detailed graphic design support (which I’m not particularly qualified to give anyway). Here, I needed to be a cheerleader, not a thought partner.
To paraphrase from Julie Menter’s presentation at the Unrig the System Summit, feedback is a privilege. When you’re asked to provide feedback, know that this person values your perspective. Similarly, when you ask for advice, know that someone is taking the time to reflect about what you’ve shared and help you improve it.
Use this question to set yourself and your counterpart up for success. In doing so, you could save time and spare hurt feelings, in addition to making the entire experience more effective and pleasant.