How to Ask for Feedback

First Published: December 09, 2020

One of the readers of my Developer Microskills newsletter sent me this request:

One thing you wrote was “Ask for help and get feedback sooner than you think you need it.” I would love to read your thoughts about HOW to do this.

This is a great question and “asking for feedback” is a perfect example of a microskill.

Why Asking for Feedback Fails

Most of the time, our experience with feedback goes one of two ways:

  1. We wait around for someone to voluntarily give us feedback. This almost never happens and when it does it’s usually just trolling or arbitrary criticism from random people on the internet, not actionable ways to improve from people you trust.
  2. We say, “Let me know if you have any feedback!” and the person responds, “Looks great!” That can be a nice ego boost but also not very helpful if you’re really interested in improving.

There’s a hidden social dance happening here that can explain this. First, most people are predisposed to enforce social norms and be polite unless anonymity or removal of consequences are involved (hence: trolling and random critics on the internet). So, when you directly ask someone for feedback, they are likely going to tell you what you want to hear. They’re also going to try to save face unless you make them feel safe; most people won’t tell you they weren’t able to follow something out of fear of looking foolish.

The other thing going on here is that people are busy with a lot of demands on their attention, so they are looking to say no by default. This leads to an important thing to remember in communication: the depth of someone’s engagement with you is directly related to their trust in you and investment in your success. The deeper the connection you have with someone, the more you can ask of them. This is why asking a random stranger to help you move to a new house won’t be successful but asking your best friend probably will be.

How to Effectively Ask for Feedback

When asking for feedback, you need to take these social elements into account. First, you need to be specific, because vagueness will trigger the default polite-but-useless response. Second, you need to adjust your request to the depth of your relationship with the person so they can respond positively without feeling like they have to commit an afternoon to you. This is why requests to review articles or code can often go ignored unless there's a clear benefit to the other person (e.g. they're your coworker so they have to).

Here are four tactics and examples for effectively asking for feedback:

  1. Ask for specific feedback on a piece of your work: “What do you think of the way I wrote the login method?”
  2. Give them choices to pick from: “Did you find my slides readable or were they too cluttered?”
  3. Craft useful yes or no questions that are easy to follow up on: “Do you think I used the right number of comments in this code?”
  4. Don’t put them in a position to embarrass themselves: “RxJS was really confusing for me when I learned it, was there any way I could make my explanation clearer in this talk?” This is much more effective than just, “Did that make sense?” People are going to say “yes” to that 90% of the time to save face (you can tell this by their facial expression and tone of voice). A related trick for this is to create a hypothetical third person: “The next time I give this talk, is there something I could do to make the explanation clearer for the audience?”

The response to a well-defined, concrete question will tell you where to go next. If they don’t seem responsive or interested, just move on. Not everyone is good at giving feedback or interested in helping. A lot of the time (I think most of the time) people really do want to help, though, and just aren’t sure how to do so in a way that both respects their time and doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

There are many other approaches out there to getting feedback. A really helpful one is David Perell's CRIBS formula. Get others to tell you what's:

  • Confusing
  • Repeated
  • Interesting
  • Boring
  • Surprising

Another is Mary Robinette Kowal's ABCD method. Get others to answer the following about your writing:

  • What’s Amazing?
  • What’s Boring?
  • What’s Confusing?
  • What Didn’t you believe?

How to Frame Your Feedback Request

Sometimes you need to ask for feedback through an email or a message. If that’s the case, here’s a formula you can try:

  1. Let them know you’re trying to improve. (This lets them know it’s okay to be honest.)
  2. Ask directly for specific help. (Make it very clear what you’re asking and how to respond.)
  3. Give them an out. (A “no” or “Sorry I don’t have time” is at least more useful than no response at all.)
  4. Thank them. (Make it clear you value their time.)

Here’s an example:

Hey Christy,

Thanks for merging my PR the other day. I’m really trying to improve my JavaScript and was wondering if I could get your opinion on something.

Do you think this function was efficient enough? [paste the code, don’t link somewhere else]

Even just one or two pointers would be super helpful, but no worries if you don’t have time.

Thanks! Sam

Overall, be genuine and grateful in your tone while also asking an appropriate level of help for your relationship.

One other caveat here: you may find mixed success asking for feedback from people interviewing you for a job. They often can’t give you feedback in the middle of the process because they risk affecting the outcome. If you feel like you made a connection with the interviewer, wait until after the decision to ask them for feedback and then clear the air by thanking them and letting them know you’re just looking for ways to improve (as opposed to trying to argue with them).

Getting Feedback When You’re On Your Own

Not everyone has a manager or team lead invested in their success, and even if they do, not all companies are structured for quality feedback and measurable improvement. If that’s the case, you’ve got a couple of options. First, you could try to find a more senior coworker and build a relationship using the strategies above. Second, you could crowdsource your feedback through places like Discord servers or other code communities (like I talked about in the issue on self-mentoring). A lot of coding communities have channels specifically for asking for feedback, so take advantage of those.

Final Thoughts

Asking for feedback can be tricky. Even with your clearest request, not everyone will give you feedback, and less will give you good feedback. You always have the ability to accept or reject feedback as valid or useful for you. Take what’s helpful and leave the rest.

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