How to Ask for Feedback

Feb 10, 2022

Great feedback is a gift, but most feedback isn’t great. It takes a lot of intention, practice, and self-awareness to master the art of giving feedback. It treads on treacherous territory—the Ego—making it tough to toe the line and easy to take the wrong turns. As a result, most of the feedback we get is all over the place.

Occasionally, we get feedback that sparks us with a life-changing boost, rocketing us to a higher plane of confidence. Yet too often, we’re forced to settle for feedback that’s misaligned to our needs, poorly delivered, or both. This is a dangerous problem, because the wrong feedback can be destructive to our work and debilitating to our confidence. The stakes are sky high. Getting feedback can feel like plucking from a mixed bag of delightful, decent and devastating.

How do we escape this gambling game of pain or gain?

Thankfully, the feedback we get is not determined entirely by those who give it. With a little planning and care, we can greatly improve incoming feedback. When we seek out feedback pro-actively, we control two crucial parts of the process: what kind of feedback we ask for, and how we receive it. It’s in our best interests to take advantage of these levers to improve the impact of feedback that comes our way. Our growth (and sanity) depends on it.

In this essay, we’ll explore tactics we can use to elevate our clarity when asking for feedback, and ways to manage our mindsets while receiving it. With a few adjustments to our approach, we can dramatically improve the effectiveness of the feedback we get, and protect our peace in the process.

Be Specific

The worst mistake we can make is to ask for feedback without clarifying what we’re looking for. Unless we’re working with a trusted peer who also happens to be a mind-reader, this is a recipe for disaster.

There are two main kinds of feedback:

  1. Tactical: “I see your goal. You could try this other route to get there—it might be shorter, simpler, or more fruitful.”
  2. Strategic: “I see your goal. You should pursue this other goal instead.”

Decide which one you want, and make sure to ask for it specifically. Most people are looking for tactical feedback—tips on how to better achieve their goals. But when they seek feedback, if they don’t specify what they want, they often get dumped with advice on how to change their strategy. They’re left even more confused than when they started.

I’ve had this happen to me many times before. One time, I was talking to a fellow writer about my approach for publishing my book of fables. I told them that I wanted to spend at least some effort (six months or so) exploring publishing options, and if I didn’t get any bites, I would fall back to self-publishing. I asked them what they thought about my approach. Instead of sharing tactics, they told me a story about a friend of theirs who had spent four years querying publishers before they finally got a deal to publish their book. “So, just keep trying, and never give up!”

I nodded, thanked them for sharing, but came away disappointed. I wanted tactics on my strategy, and instead got advice to change my strategy. I was frustrated in the moment, but later realized the fault was my own. I should have been more clear about the kind of feedback I was looking for. This is what I asked:

“My approach for publishing my book is to spend X months on outreach, then fall back to self-publishing. What do you think?”

Do you see the problem? “What do you think?” is far too ambiguous and open-ended. I should have asked something like this:

“If I only have X months for publishing outreach, what are the most impactful things I could do in that time?”

Much better. With tactics in hand, I am well prepared to execute on my strategy. If all I had was another strategy, I’d be unprepared for both, and back in a pit of questioning, still trying to figure out which strategy is right for me. Note that I can still adjust my strategy as I see fit. Just because I asked for tactics on this strategy, doesn’t mean I’m tied to it forever. I can change my mind. I’m in control.

Even with clear asks, we still don’t always get what we asked for. If I framed the question to focus on tactics, and they still wanted to advise on strategy, they might respond with something like, “Well, I know you asked about how to X, but I really think you should Y instead…” That exposes their belief that they think they know better about what’s right for me. There are some cases (for example, a trusted mentor) where you might want to be open to this kind of feedback. Most of the time, I suggest that you be wary of it. In some cases, when someone makes a certain decision, they are threatened by the idea of you making a different one. If you ask them what to do, they’ll do their best to guide you along their own path, rather than what’s best for you. (I wrote more about this in my essay on Status Police.)

This tendency for folks to try and advise-by-default is not necessarily rooted in bad intentions. It’s far easier for people to give advice (strategic feedback on what they would do) than it is for them to give feedback (tactical tips on how you might do what you’re doing differently.) The former relies on memory of their past, the latter depends on empathy and expertise.

Constructive vs Destructive Feedback

Most people default to giving advice, which is dangerous, because the advice we give to others is often meant for ourselves. We can’t help it. (This phenomenon can be a very useful internal signal—if you find yourself repeatedly giving out the same advice, consider if you yourself need to take it!)

Adjust your asks to be as clear as impossible. Try to remove any ambiguity as to what you’re really looking for. Otherwise, the miscommunication will lead to misalignment. Implementing misaligned feedback is an impossible task, because it requires that you transform the work to align with their goals, rather than your own. It’s a burden no one should have to bear.

You Are Not Your Work

After reading the prior section, you might be wondering: What happens if I don’t know what I want? How do I ask for feedback when I’m unsure of what I need?

Short answer: Don’t.

Feedback is a way to get answers to your questions. If you’re unsure of what your questions are, you should ask yourself why you’re seeking feedback at all. You might be surprised by the answer. Maybe you’re struggling to clarify your questions because you don’t have any. What you really have is a request—you want someone to look at your work and tell you it’s good, which will tell you that you are good. A friend once shared something that struck me:

“I wonder if I’m really seeking feedback on my work, or just seeking validation of myself.”

It’s in our nature to desire validation, but feedback is a risky way to seek it. If you ask for feedback to validate yourself, and the feedback isn’t good, then you will internalize that feedback to be about you. Don’t let that happen.

There are far healthier (and safer) ways to attain validation than seeking feedback. It can come from friends and family, but the most powerful source of validation is yourself. Practicing self-love and self-validation can build an internal foundation of confidence.

You don’t need to be validated by others. You are valid just the way you are, with or without your work. You are you, and that’s enough. Always.

Once your internal validation is strong, you won’t need to rely as much on external validation. You can separate yourself from the work, and internalize that feedback on your work is about the work, not about you. When you look at feedback objectively, it’s much easier to find the wisdom within it.

Focus feedback onto your work. Keep it away from you.

Manage Your Energy

If I pay attention to my mood as I read feedback, I notice that it can vary by the day. Sometimes, I view feedback with a light heart and open mind, smiling and nodding as I process the guidance. Other times, feedback feels like a heavy anvil dropping onto my head, and I dread opening the email that shared it.

This fluctuation of feeling is natural—it’s an indication of varied energy levels. Feedback can be heart-wrenching, but it might be exactly what we need to hear. When that heavy gift arrives, we need to be ready for it. We cannot waste that precious opportunity for growth. We have to pay attention to where we are in terms of energy reserves before we open any piece of feedback.

To build resilience in receiving feedback, we must learn to manage our energy.

Next time you’re about to open a piece of feedback that you suspect might be particularly heavy, take a breath first. Check in with yourself first. If you can’t take some time beforehand, then be sure to do so after reading the feedback (but before you respond.) Take a long walk, sit on it for a day, and give yourself time to refresh the energy needed to handle, process, and respond to the heaviness.

The internet is a wonderful thing, it connects us to so many places and people. But our emotional bandwidth doesn’t scale as fast as our internet speeds. We have to manage ourselves accordingly.

Enough is Enough

I write a lot, and I try to get feedback on every piece of writing before I publish it. But it can get overwhelming if I seek out too much of it. 2-3 pieces of feedback from each category is usually sufficient. After that, I hit diminishing returns on the nature of feedback I get. I usually seek out at least one person from each of these categories:

  1. Peers in the Trade: Ideally, I want to share this with other folks who are working on / building the same kinds of things I am, or at least have similar goals as creators. If they are a little further down the experience path than me, even better. (Too far in either direction of experience can make it challenging, as their goals might be quite different than mine.)
  2. Potential Audience: I also try to get feedback from people who would be interested in what I’m making as consumers. It’s best when they are not in the trade at all (e.g. someone who doesn’t write, but reads / is interested in the topic at hand).

These categories aren’t a hard-and-fast rule, they are just the ones I’ve found most useful. Once I’ve gotten 1-2 from each of these, I stop seeking further feedback. It’s crucial to avoid overwhelming myself with too much feedback. More feedback is just another excuse to keep editing, keep revising, and keep tweaking the work until it’s “perfect.” I can’t ask everyone on the planet for their feedback, and if I did, I’d never be able to make anything that satisfied them all.

Seeking too much feedback can be a sign that we’re afraid to release our work out into the world.

We think it’s not ready, but the truth is that the work will never feel like it’s ready. Still, we have to release it at some point. As Liz Gilbert noted, “Any talent, wisdom or insight you have that you don’t share becomes pain.” Don’t hold onto it for too long. Get a little feedback, and let the work breathe out in the world, so you can do it all over again.

Embrace the mantra of progress. Forego the illusion of perfect.

Listen to Yourself

The elephant in this essay is the assumption that feedback is necessary in the first place. In many ways, it is, because we cannot truly look at our work (and ourselves) from the outside without the help of our peers. But the reality is that no one understands our own desires, goals, experiences, and work better than we do. We have an inside perspective that cannot be matched.

Listening to yourself is one of the most important skills you can build. (I believe this so strongly that I wrote an essay on it—Listen to Yourself—on building self-awareness and discovering your inner truths.) Our instincts can guide our most important decisions, but only if we let them.

If you know, you know.

Trusting your instincts doesn’t mean you ignore all feedback. To the contrary, it lowers the burden on feedback, allowing you to solicit it more freely. Then, you can combine all the different inputs together to make a well-informed decision.

“Ideally, asking advice should be like echolocation. Bounce ideas off of all of your surroundings, and listen to all the echoes to get the whole picture. Ultimately, only you know what to do, based on all the feedback you’ve received and all your personal nuances that no one else knows.”

—Derek Sivers, Hell Yeah or No

In the journey of our work, our instinct offers a bird’s-eye-view map. Feedback adds a layer of turn-by-turn directions. We know the general direction we’re trying to go, but need a little help finding our way.

Trust your internal map, but listen to the external guides.

With these tactics in mind, I hope you’ll be better equipped handle the feedback that comes your way. By adjusting your asks and managing your mindset, you can influence feedback to fuel your growth and serve your goals. Most importantly, you’ll be able to put up the boundaries to protect your peace.

Feedback is a heavy gift. Seek with caution. Handle with care.

Thanks to Catherine, Ana, Cassie, Michael and Florian for their feedback on a draft of this essay.