People & Culture

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

It’s 9am on Monday. I am cc’d on an email from a co-worker. She’s 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 11am today (which I can’t commit to because my calendar is already booked). And, she’s confirmed in the email that we have 3 Scala developers available in 2 weeks, which we do not.

Agh!!! Triage time. First, I address the scheduling conflict, move my other appointment and can thankfully attend to the sales call at 11am. More importantly, I’ve mentally decided that it’s really important 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 we communicate honestly. Ok, it’s settled, I need to have a conversation about this. But what’s the best way?

Over the lifespan of your career, you will work with many people. 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 many different types of people: each with his or her 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, a direct report. Regardless of the size of the business, reporting structure, or your seniority in the company, giving effective feedback is a valuable skill. Feedback that is given and received well will help both you and your company.

Learning how to give feedback effectively is something many people fail to take the time to learn. But, with 4 easy steps, I believe we can all get better as 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, use 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.

Step number one in giving great feedback requires that we set the stage so that the person we are giving the feedback to is open and receptive 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 you can be proactive rather than reactive.

Step 1 is: Ask, Don’t Tell – That is, start off by asking a question. My favorite 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 let’s 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 they say no, I recommend saying –“Thanks for being honest. No worries.” And then, write down your feedback for yourself, and then using the “Ask, Don’t Tell” technique 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 my why you aren’t open to feedback?” Another tactic – Ask if 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: 3 positive and 3 constructive pieces of feedback each.

2. Only Say 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: “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 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 almost always learning about their thought process will shed new light onto 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 of a better way to schedule sales calls? (One suggestion I can imagine my co-worker saying is – “How about we block of 11am every day for sales calls. This way, I always know you have 1 hour per day and don’t have to check your calendar.”)
  • We use a capacity planning calendar and it shows we’ve got Scala developers available in 5 weeks, not 2 weeks. Please check the calendar before committing availability to prospective clients. Can you help me understand your reasoning for committing the Scala developers in 2 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 know that you may be wrong. Or, you might be right AND the other person might be right too. Often times we come at things with different sets of information that leads to 2 perfectly valid yet conflicting conclusions.

One great technique for inquiring as to why the other person believes you are wrong is asking the question “What have you seen or heard that leads you to believe this?” This question forces the other person to respond with first hand knowledge. It’s asking them to state what they’ve seen or heard first hand. 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 of 11am 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 2-4 weeks notice.”

· We both agree to let the other one know if we see something that confuses us or seems to be other than what we’ve agreed today.

Talk soon,


Now that you know the secret to giving great feedback, stay tuned for our follow-up post, The Secret to Receiving Great Feedback.

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