The Secret to Giving Great Feedback: Ask, Don’t Tell

The Secret to Giving Great Feedback: Ask, Don’t Tell
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It’s 9 a.m. on Monday. I am CC’d on an email from a co-worker who has responded to an incoming sales lead that came in over the weekend. I start to cringe as I read. I discover that she’s promised that I’ll be on a sales call with the CEO of the prospective client company at 11 a.m. today—which I can’t commit to, because my calendar is already booked. And, she’s confirmed in the email that we have three Scala developers available in two weeks, which we do not.

Aargh! Triage time.

First, I address the scheduling conflict, moving my other appointment so that I can attend the sales call at 11 a.m. Next, and more importantly, I decide that I need to give my co-worker feedback. But how? When? What if she disagrees?

Maybe I should just let this one go.

No, it’s important to discuss this.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the best thing for the business was to aggressively go after this lead.

No, our company values clearly state that we communicate honestly.

Ok, it’s settled: I need to have a conversation about this. But what’s the best way?

Whether you are in a large business, a small business, or a startup, and whether you hop from job to job each year or stay put for a decade, you will almost certainly work with many people. And this means you will work with many different types of people, each with their own values, belief systems, and ways of approaching situations and solving problems.

Inevitably, you will encounter a co-worker who goes about handling a situation in a way that you feel could use some feedback. This could be a peer, a boss, or a direct report. Regardless of the size of the business, its reporting structure, or your seniority in the company, the skill of giving effective feedback will be valuable to you. Feedback that is given and received well will help both you and your company.

Many people fail to take the time to learn how to give feedback effectively. But with four easy steps, I believe we can all get better at this vital part of communication.

1. Ask, don’t tell.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If we think about feedback in this way, we can appreciate the importance of perception. Feedback is only as valuable as it is perceived and received. You can talk at people all you want, using any tone and language you choose. You can curse and shout, or talk softly and use reassuring words. But if the receiver believes you are talking nonsense, you would be better off saving your time and focusing on other matters.

The first step in giving great feedback requires that we set the stage so that the person receiving the feedback is open to hearing our thoughts.

Too often, people make the mistake of just launching into the feedback. After all, you are smart, you have something logical to say, let’s just say it. Right? Wrong. Coming into the discussion with a plan is among the most valuable business lessons I’ve learned. Prepare your comments ahead of time so that you can be proactive rather than reactive.

Step one is, ask, don’t tell—that is, start off by asking a question. My favorite form of question to start with is, “I’ve got some thoughts on the email you sent this morning that I’d like to share with you. Are you open to hearing them?

Starting off with a question like this lets the person know you are about to give them feedback. It also gives them the chance to say no.

What to do if they say no

It’s OK if they say no. Likely they will say yes, but if the opposite happens, I recommend saying, “Thanks for being honest. No worries.” Then write down your feedback for your own reference, and use the “ask, don’t tell” technique again, the next time you want to give this person feedback.

If the person persistently says no, you can try another question: “I hear you say no, and I’ve heard you say no several times in the past month. Can you share with me why you aren’t open to feedback?”

Another tactic is to ask whether they have any feedback for you. “Let’s grab lunch or a drink, and do a sort of peer review, and give each other feedback. Would that be OK?” You could set the ground rules as three positive and three constructive pieces of feedback each.

2. Say only things that can be acted upon. And still ask lots of questions.

Assuming they say yes, and they are open to hearing feedback, it’s up to you to make the feedback constructive. My good friend Dan gave me one of the most valuable pieces of career advice I’ve ever received:

Write down all of the things you want to say to the other person. Then ask yourself, “Which of these things am I saying for the sole purpose of making myself feel better?” Cross those things off the list. Don’t say them to the other person.

Only give feedback that the other person can take action on. Examples of things that you might consider keeping to yourself are,

  • “You’re a jerk.”
  • “I hate it when you…”
  • “Don’t do this again.”

You get the idea. What is the person hearing this supposed to do with it besides get defensive? No good can come of this other than making your own self feel better.

Partner this technique with the “ask, don’t tell” technique for best results.

Continuing to ask questions and ensuring that you seek to understand really enables you to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. There’s a good chance you don’t have their full side of the story, and learning about their thought process will almost always shed new light on your perception of the incident.

In the case of my co-worker’s email, here’s my short list of things that can be acted on constructively, paired up with my questions:

  • I use Google calendar to organize my workday, and it’s usually current. I’ll ask that you check my calendar before committing my time to anyone. Or do you have ideas about a better way to schedule sales calls? (One suggestion I can imagine my co-worker saying is, “How about we block of 11 a.m. every day for sales calls. This way, I always know you have one hour per day, and I don’t have to check your calendar.”)
  • We use a capacity-planning calendar, and it shows we’ve got Scala developers available in five weeks, not two weeks. Please check the calendar before committing availability to prospective clients. Can you help me understand your reasoning for committing the Scala developers in two weeks? Did you check the capacity calendar before you sent the email? (Perhaps she did indeed check the calendar and made the commitment anyway. Perhaps she has a very valid reason for doing so.)

3. Be prepared to be wrong.

Before deciding to give feedback to someone, you have to truly and honestly understand that you may be wrong. Or, you might be right and the other person might be right, too. Often we come at things with different sets of information, which leads to two perfectly valid yet conflicting conclusions.

One great technique for inquiring as to why the other person believes you are wrong is to ask the question, “What have you seen or heard that leads you to believe this?” This question forces the other person to respond with firsthand knowledge. Chances are, whatever the other person says in response to this will be educational for you and will help you see things from a new perspective.

4. Get permission to tell again, and document the decisions.

Assuming you both come to an agreement on what to do the next time something like this occurs, be sure to document the decisions. This can be in an email, Google docs, Dropbox, a wiki,… And ask one final question: “If I see this happen again, is it OK with you that I bring it to your attention?”

In the case of my co-worker, after our discussion, I sent her a simple email:


Great chat today! I love that we can be frank with each other, and I appreciate your honesty. Here’s what I think we agreed to today. If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, please let me know:

  • We’ll block off 11 a.m. each day for sales calls. If there are needs for sales calls at other times during the week, we’ll both check each other’s calendars first, before committing time to others.
  • We’ll both check the capacity-planning calendar, and we’ll tell all prospective clients, “We typically can start a new engagement with two to four weeks’ notice.”
  • We each agree to let the other know if we see communications that confuse us or seem to deviate from what we’ve agreed today.

Talk soon,


Now that you know the secret to giving great feedback, learn more about How to leverage positive feedback for personal growth.

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Debbie Madden

Debbie Madden

Founder & Chairwoman

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