Over a decade ago, I joined an organization called Toastmasters. It’s an organization that gathers like-minded individuals and provides an agenda and structure for them to speak either with preparation or without, and then to receive feedback. When I first joined, I wanted to absorb as much as I could, so I constantly asked for feedback from others on my speeches and speaking assignments.
I would like to think that my ego is and was bulletproof after getting feedback hundreds of times, but each time I received critique, it would take me a while before I would recover. I would turn over the feedback many times in my head, look at it in different ways and from different perspectives, and then try to consider my performance objectively to see if the critique applied. In the end, after my ego stopped raising a fuss, the feedback was always helpful.
Why you shouldn’t ask for feedback
Consider the example of Toastmasters. You deliver a speech and then a speech evaluator reviews your performance and provides you with feedback, often with strengths and opportunities for improvement. Feedback is backwards looking. Not all speech evaluators are of equal calibre either – some point out your strengths and opportunities to improve, but provide no advice on how to change or improve.
Feedback also introduces an adversarial relationship between you and the person you are asking for feedback. When you ask for feedback, no matter what you and the other person’s role is, it’s a bit like the other person is ‘better’ than you, otherwise, you wouldn’t be asking for feedback from them.
One more reason feedback isn’t great: the fact that it is backwards looking means it is focused on the past and if you’re anything like me, receiving feedback means thinking about your past behavior (and what can you do to change that?).
What to do instead: ask for advice
Instead of asking for feedback, ask for advice. Consider the differences between asking for feedback and asking for advice.
When you ask for advice, you are thinking about your future. What can you do better the next time you do this?
When you ask for advice, you get tangible comments you can action. A lot of advice you likely receive is “you should do x” or “you should avoid y”. Advice isn’t fluffy and you never hear comments like “you should give a better presentation next time” as advice.
Another reason asking for advice is superior to asking for feedback: the relationship between you and the other person changes. It’s not adversarial like when you ask for feedback. Instead, it’s as if you and the other person are partners.
Finally, when you ask for advice, not only can you be specific about what you are looking for (though you can do this with feedback too), but you both (as partners) can tackle the opportunities as if you both are working on the problem together.
Many thanks to Daniel Pink:
And to Dr. Amantha Imber: