The Power of Asking for Feedback

Unrelated: I got more takoyaki the other day!
Unrelated: I got more takoyaki the other day!

A few days ago I listened to a talk about asking for feedback. While I’ve been a big fan of the power of asking for feedback for a long time now (as a manager at my previous job, to my Kickstarter backers at my current job, and in general), the talk really opened me to a few key elements that I thought were worth delving into here.

The first element is the importance of actually being open to hearing honest feedback, especially for things that we’re insecure about. The talk discusses the idea that people often tell us what they think we want to hear not because they want to, but rather because they’ve seen the way we respond to the truth in the past. I think this is especially true in relationships.

The second element is the importance of askingI think sometimes we assume that by surrounding ourselves with people we trust, they’ll dispense feedback when needed, like an open-door policy at work. But the door really only opens when we ask for feedback. That’s the real invitation.

The third element is specificity. The way we ask for feedback matters. You can’t just sit down with your girlfriend and say, “Tell me how I can be a better man.” That’s not a terrible start, but you might be better off asking, “What’s one thing I do that really annoys you?”

My favorite two examples in the talk were as follows:

  1. Kissing: If you’re in a relationship–no longer how long you’ve been in it–ask your partner how you can be a better kisser. Ask what they like the most about your kissing and what they like the least. Kissing is such an intimate act, and yet–at least in my experience–it’s pretty rare to have an open and honest discussion about how to be a better (or more compatible) kisser. You can figure out 90% of it by paying attention to the other person, but I love the idea of opening up that door. It’s a vulnerable thing to do, and it says a lot about how you value that person and the relationship simply by asking.
  2. Correcting bad habits. The speaker–who works with college kids–said that he hears all the time that after a break up, the person who was broken up wonders, “What did I do wrong?” Maybe they even ask the other person the same thing. The speaker is bewildered by this–why not ask that kind of question during the relationship, not after? 9 times out of 10 it might not make a difference on the relationship itself. But maybe by having a conversation about what you’re doing wrong during the relationship can bring to light some of the things you do wrong in all relationships, and you can correct them for the next person. If no one ever tells you those things (because you never asked), you never have a chance to correct them and be a better boyfriend/girlfriend.

Now, I’ll say this: I’ve been thinking about this talk a lot. I’m not in a relationship right now, so the relationship-y aspect of the talk doesn’t really apply to me right now. But I want to apply what I heard somehow. Where do you start, though? With family? With friends? How do you ask for feedback in such a way that the other person doesn’t assume you’re actually just trying to get them to ask the same question?

If you listen to the talk, I’d love to hear what you think.

7 thoughts on “The Power of Asking for Feedback”

  1. This one cuts me pretty close as I’ve had to ask these kinds of things in my own marriage. My wife and I try to sit down at least once a month and just talk about things that bother us that each other are doing. I wish I had better advice, but what worked for us was just doing it. At first it felt awkward but now that we’ve done it a bit we’re way more comfortable.

    If you want to bring it to other places like family and friends I can guarantee it will feel awkward at first. I’m not always in tune socially so I’ve had to ask friends and family for feedback to help make things not so awkward for me in public but I’m 100% glad I did. Push through being uncomfortable and it will be rewarding.

    • Erik: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That’s awesome that you’ve created a consistent habit of exchanging feedback with your wife–it’s telling that you both have become more comfortable over time.

      I like the idea of asking someone about the things that bother them. I think that’s the perfect open door for them to say a variety of things. I’m going to give that a try. Thank you!

      • I second Erik that communication is the key to a good relationship. My husband and I don’t have a set time that we discuss things that are bugging us, but we’re very open about annoyances. Sometimes things are resolved with the simplicity of realizing there are certain things that one party cares about a lot more than the other and thus takes ownership of, like making the bed or doing the dishes right after supper, or things that need to be resolved with money, like buying a Roomba so neither of us has to vacuum or a kitchen cart, so that we have more counter space, and sometimes things that take real compromise, like agreeing on a set of goals to meet for when we’d both feel comfortable having a child.

        Though I’d warn that you should never ask a question unless you are absolutely prepared for the answer, sometimes finding out that truth is worse than not knowing! Asking my extended family or friends what they thought my faults are is something I’d only do if I thought our relationship was in trouble or I was unhappy with who I was and where my life was going.

        • seekignsheltercomic: Thanks for sharing your perspective. What do you think about the core tenet of my post being the value of actively asking for feedback (on a schedule or at any time)? I would distinguish that a little bit from what you said about simply being open about annoyances.

          • Personally, I wouldn’t do it for relationships. It can be like kicking a hornet’s nest and finding out that someone has a problem with you that can’t be fixed, can have massive negative repercussions. By not asking, it makes it the other person’s problem, to either work out on one’ s own or confront you about. For anything that is something you do instead of something you are, be it job performance, honing your craft, learning a new skill etc. absolutely. I think you already outlined why it can be such a powerful tool for improvement.

  2. I once asked a GF if she wanted to exchange a list of 10 good points and 10 bad points about each other. I chose the number arbitrarily but we both did it and it served a purpose. I became aware of a couple of annoying traits, one of which I thought she liked!

    I later asked my best friend if he wanted to do the same (5 of each) and that was a nice experience, specially since a lot of our quibbles were so minor compared to what we appreciated about each other. For me, I think that hearing the positives meant that I didn’t get too upset and it kept me smiling even as I took a couple of steps to be more mindful of the other person.

    I will say though, that folk are so unique that one person’s quibble may be another’s source of excitement. What I learned wasn’t ways to improve myself, so much as it was awareness of the other person. Carrying that feedback across relationships could be dangerous.

    • Behrooz: Thanks for sharing! I like the idea of simultaneously writing lists–that seems like a good way to take the time to think about what you want to say. I also like that the list included positives and negatives.

      That’s a great point about how something that might be annoying to one person might be unique to them and no one else. Perhaps that’s a reason to actively ask different people who are important to you how you can be better to them specifically so you can identify patterns from person to person.


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