A Tiny, Powerful Question for Better Feedback

Originally posted Apr 21, 2019

This post originally appeard on the 11:11 Supply Nerd Out Blog

Giving feedback is hard. Most of us avoid giving routine feedback to our friends, partners, coworkers; the act of giving someone clear feedback can feel really heavy and intense.

In my workshop at 11:11, I’ll be walking through what I call the “feedback equation”: a system of giving feedback that can feel a bit lighter-weight and digestible for the feedback recipient, and can take a lot of pressure off the feedback-giver.

Feedback Equation

We’ll go into detail on each part of this equation in the workshop. But one important component I’d like to explore here is how to ask the feedback recipient a question, instead of making a request for them to change their behavior. Asking a question can make the feedback recipient feel seen and heard, and can turn the conversation from being a one-way delivery of feedback into a two-way healthy dialog.

Asking open-ended questions can be hard at first, because we instinctively want to share advice and solve their problem. For example, “Have you thought about trying X?” isn’t an open question; it’s still a request for a specific behavior change you’d like to see. Instead, I recommend getting genuinely curious about this feedback recipient. What do you really want to know about them?

For example:

… are all authentic, truly open questions you could ask them. These would signal the end of the one-way feedback, and turn it into a two-way dialog. Each of these open questions could each yield healthy introspection, signal support for each other, and make the feedback conversation overall feel a lot less scary or intense.

Of the many questions I’ve tried out as part of this feedback method, my favorite question to ask is, “What are you optimizing for?”

I love this question. I’ve even started to use it as a routine part of my coaching calls. “What are you optimizing for?” doesn’t sound aggressive—it genuinely sounds curious. People have rarely put a lot of time into thinking about what they’re optimizing for, so often this question gives them an opportunity to sit back and really think about it.

And there’s no wrong answer! Some people are optimizing for speed and efficiency. Other people are optimizing for quality and thoroughness. Some folks are optimizing for doing lots of learning, or supporting their loved ones, or pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. The sky is truly the limit with this question.

And the best part? You might learn something new about this feedback recipient! Their answer to “What are you optimizing for?” might totally blow your mind, and reframe the entire context of their behavior, and your feedback. This is one of my favorite potential outcomes of the feedback equation: realizing that your feedback was based on an assumption you made, or a judgment you have, and that you need to take your own step back and do some introspection.

So the next time you have some feedback to give to someone, try out the “What are you optimizing for?” question, and be open to a wide range of possibilities. And if you’d like to learn more about forming great feedback, check out our Delivering Better Feedback workshop!

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.