How to gather helpful insight from your peers
This post originally appeared on Lead Dev.
When we encounter new challenges as leaders and managers, we can lean on peers, friends, and mentors for support. These folks might offer advice, share some gut checks, maybe they’ll even give us feedback as we work through new kinds of problems and experiences to help us hone our skills.
I like to refer to this crew of people as a “Manager Voltron,” inspired by the 1980s television show about heroes that join forces to create a giant super robot. Your Voltron crew is invaluable; they bring a variety of experiences, skill sets, and perspectives to help shape you into the leader you want to be.
But despite how much you might value their role in your growth, it can still feel tricky to know how to lean on them for support. Here I’m sharing three steps for gathering helpful insight from your peers, from identifying the problem and the kind of support you need to asking them the right questions.
Step 1: What do you need help with?
When we hit a new roadblock or wade into unfamiliar territory, many of us spin our wheels and don’t know how to move forward. This is a great moment to reach out to a member of our Voltron crew. But what if we’re not yet sure what the problem is?
It’s totally okay to ask for help before you know exactly which aspect is in the way! If you have a peer who’s a good coach, they can help you introspect and brainstorm to identify what’s at the core of your challenge. Or sometimes, we just need a good venting session to get unblocked—in this case, find your best venting buddy!
But before you reach out, do an internal gut-check just in case you’re able to identify the core of your challenge first. If you can bring a specific aspect of this roadblock to your Voltron crew member, it’ll make it even easier for them to support you! You can use these questions to introspect:
- What feels surprising to me?
- What’s my gut telling me?
- What’s the worst possible outcome, and the most likely outcome?
- What, if anything, is going unsaid?
Again, don’t worry about knowing exactly what you need help with yet. While these questions can help you recognize if there’s a specific aspect of the problem to lean on your support network for, sometimes it’ll be more ambiguous, which means you can ask for coaching from a member of your Voltron crew. Either path forward is fine—just make sure you’ve taken five minutes of introspection time first.
Step 2: What type of support would be the most helpful?
At this stage you know the thing you’re bringing to your buddy, whether it’s a crystal clear topic or still a little fuzzy. Now check in with yourself about what type of support would be most helpful.
Consider your current headspace. Do you want a member of your Voltron crew to offer their advice, help you introspect or brainstorm, lend some feedback, or provide a gut-check or space to vent? Share this with them! Here are some example ways you might frame it:
- “Hey friend, I could use a gut check on this challenge.”
- “I’m wrestling with Project X and could really use a space to vent for a second. Any chance you have ten minutes free this afternoon?”
- “I’m hitting a brick wall over and over again with this comms plan, and would love some feedback or advice from you on what I could do differently.”
Awesome. Once they agree to meet, you’ll have new momentum. Now let’s make the most of this conversation!
Step 3: Elicit their experiences and insights
Take a minute or two before your meeting to jot down two specific questions you want to ask this member of your Voltron crew. This lightweight prep work can help you feel less pressure in the moment to come up with the “right” questions. And in doing so, you might even discover a new problem statement, more insights about the core of your challenge, or a unique aspect of your topic that you could really use their help with.
Feel free to steal one of these questions to kick off your conversation:
- “I’m working on Project X, and I’m trying to hone [this skill]. What do you wish your past self knew about this [type of project/skill]?”
- “Tell me about a time when [specific challenge happened]… What did you do? What was surprising?”
- “I could use a gut check on Project X. My plan is to [take this action], but I’m not sure what all of the pitfalls are here—in your experience, what have you seen go sideways?”
- “I’ve been asking myself [this question] over and over again as I work on Project X. What’s your instinct or experience here?”
- “The more I think about it, the more I think I could use permission to do [thing]. I know it sounds silly, but do you think I have permission to do that?”
After they answer one of your questions, don’t ask another one just yet! Instead, invite your Voltron buddy to share more perspective on their answer: “Oh interesting, can you say more about that?” People love to feel helpful, but sometimes folks aren’t sure which information is most useful so they may hold back. Explicitly invite them to share more! Only after you’ve really explored their answer should you move on to a new question.
If the person you’re speaking to takes a while to think about your question, I’d encourage you to avoid rephrasing a question or adding more context unless your Voltron crew member asks for it. You want to hear their unique, brilliant insights, and sometimes they’ll just need a moment to think about their answer first.
You’ll be using some active listening skills as they give you their advice and perspective, which might mean there will be awkward silence as you leave lots of room for them to think about a question or see if they have more insights to share. That’s okay, and normal!
Of course, some folks can go on and on for days about their advice or experiences. You can ask a clarifying question if there’s a new angle you want their insight on. You might say, “Got it, I think I have that part of this challenge under control. What I’m really curious about is…” to nudge them in a different direction.
Your Manager Voltron crew of support is eager to help you grow, and they’re waiting for an opportunity to help! To set these conversations up for success—for both of you—identify the kind of support you need, prepare for five minutes beforehand, and be as specific as possible with your questions. You’ll walk away with clearer takeaways, and your Voltron relationship will be even stronger for it.