Awkward 1:1s: The Art of Getting Honest Feedback

If you’re not constantly getting honest, hard feedback on yourself, your growth will be slow. If you’re a manager, not knowing the truth means your team will suck. Most people claim they want feedback, but they don’t just go out and get it — or don’t know how to get honest answers. When the truth is eluding you, this is how to get it out of people. (This is Part 2 of the Awkward 1:1 series).

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • Your manager gives you some feedback that your peers are unhappy with how you collaborate with the team, but can’t give you any satisfying examples.
  • You’re really trying to grow faster but feel a little stuck. You ask your manager “how do I get to the next level?” and your peers “hey, what should I do different?” but you’re not getting anything meaty enough.
  • A friend is complaining that their significant other is mad at them but they don’t know why. They asked and got an unconvincing “it’s nothing.”

I’ve heard all three of these in just the last week. And of course I’ve personally lived each one many, many times, and I know how frustrating it is.

It’d be such a relief to be able to figure out what’s wrong and get concrete examples straight from the horse’s mouth. So let’s do that.

It’s about them — it’s not about you.

If you think about these situations, it’s clear that just asking is a first step but it isn’t enough — you can try but you don’t usually get the full answer. Most of the time people don’t trust you enough to tell you the full truth, and rightfully so. It’s pretty dangerous to tell people what they’re doing wrong or what you didn’t like.

The standard advice is that to get real answers you must build trust — true, but by itself pretty unhelpful. If you already had everyone’s trust, you wouldn’t need to read this. So the skill you need is to build trust in the moment, through the feedback conversation itself.

Here’s how to do that: if you want to get the truth out of people, you have to lead the conversation for their comfort, not for yours.

People fail at this because we ask for feedback, but at the first negative thing we hear our brain goes into protective “me me me” mode. That’s a misunderstanding, that’s not fair, I’m actually quite good at that, etc. Stop it. They’re the ones taking a big risk in such a conversation, not you. Stop worrying about your pain — growth is painful, and this is growth.

Don’t want them to pass? Make it wonderful to tell you hard shit.

So the goal for you is to make this whole experience as wonderful for them as possible. They’re doing a mental calculation: “Should I say it?”. And you want the answer to be “obviously yes!”.

To help me nail it, I break it down into three parts: reduce the risk for them to tell me stuff; show them what the payoff will be; and make it less difficult to come up with a good answer and phrasing.

So if you want people to tell you the real stuff: you gotta make telling you safe, easy, and rewarding.

Make it Safe

Safety first. There’s a lot of these, because it’s the most important part.

  • Actually want the feedback. Most important — and hardest. People have an amazing sense of “smell” for this built out of years of self-preservation, and they’ll know if you’re faking it. If successful, you’ll hear things that hurt your ego and feel unfair, and you have to actually want that.
  • Give them a reason. Don’t leave them to guess at your intent. Tell them your goal. Why are you asking them? Why now? These are all great: “Because I want to get better and I need your help”, “because I trust your judgement”, or “because I’m building a self-improvement plan and I need an honest assessment”.
  • Tell them you already know you have an issue. Nobody wants to be the first to spill the beans on your most annoying habit. Almost every time I ask “Hey, do I talk too much in meetings?” I see a look of blind panic. This turns into relief when I add “I know I talk too much all the time. I want to know if YOU have seen it.” Sometimes a reveal like this opens the floodgates for a 10 minute discussion of your failings — I hope you’re ready!
  • Promise them a good reaction. Head off their biggest fear. This is especially crucial if the relationship is new, or if you’re known for not taking it well. Figure out what they’re afraid you’ll do (e.g. yell, sulk, excuse, deny, blame), and tell them you won’t do it. If you claim you don’t know what you do when faced with bad feedback, ask a friend — they know.
  • Thank them in advance for being brave enough to be honest. First, this shows you know saying tough stuff is hard; second, thanking them for being brave makes it much easier for them to actually feel brave and do it.

Make it Easy

So let’s say you’ve got them over the hump, and with your promises of good intent they now believe telling you things will be reasonably safe. The next blocker is that, unless you have a glaringly awful habit, it’s pretty hard to come up with good feedback for another person.

So you have to make it easier on them. Think: what makes test questions hard or easy? What’s easy to react to, and what requires a ton of deep thought?

  • Present some options. Our favorite, multiple choice! “How can I be a better teammate for you?” is max open-ended, max hard. It’s so much easier to answer if you split it into options: “Am I helping you well with your work? Is my work quality above or below average? What do you wish I did less of? More of? You choose — should I focus on speed, quality, or empathy?”. The more options you present, the better feedback you’ll get.
  • Ask about their emotions. Our logical brain is hard and expensive to use. Our emotional brain is easy and always-on. For example, “Do you ever feel frustrated / worried / annoyed about working with me?” is an easy instant yes/no. Then, just ask obvious follow-ups to dig into why they feel how they feel and get to something actionable.
  • Ask for a letter grade on some aspect of your work. Then, no matter what, like a high expectations parent, ask “Why not an A+?” People always give you a gut-feel instant grade, but then you can get them to justify it. For example, if you’re a “B+” at collaboration and just ask them “How am I doing?” you’ll hear an unhelpful “Pretty good!”. But, if upon hearing a B+ you ask “What would it take to get to an A–?” you’ll immediately get a solid answer.
  • Ask them to expand on feedback you got elsewhere. You can get amazing stuff by getting just a small nugget from one person, carrying it to a bunch of others, and growing it like a snowball. It’s much easier to add color and examples to feedback than to come up with it. As a bonus, you sometimes get “and, in related news, you also suck at this!” If you catch a thread, you can pull on it and reveal the whole thing by talking to a few people.

Make it Rewarding

Now we come to the payoff for them that actually makes this all worthwhile. You took them through the wringer. You begged them to tell you something hard. You worked to make them feel safe enough to do it. You made it easy by giving them options, examples, and structure.

Now you have to make it so that when they look back, it’s a positive experience for them. Next time, they’ll be thinking: was last time worth it? If the answer is yes, this is how trust is built.

  • Thank them. Even if you already did it in advance, do it again. They took a risk on you. Reward them.
  • They need to see action. It’s so satisfying to give someone feedback and then watch them try to act on it (even if it doesn’t fully work!). Whatever they told you, follow through. Change your behavior. Try a new approach. If the adjustment you make wouldn’t naturally be visible to them (maybe it’s in other meetings, for example), give them updates on what you’re trying and how it’s going.
  • Their life should get better. Make sure your adjustments improve their life in some way. In particular, this is a great goal to have for all feedback you get when you’re a manager.
  • Attribute the change to the feedback. Finally, just to make sure, at some later time tell them you made the changes because of what they told you. Most of the time you’d think it would be obvious, but I’ve been surprised at how often people fail to connect that it was their speaking up led to the change (vs. you just realizing it).

Now go and really find out what’s up.

I strongly encourage going through this process regularly in your Awkward 1:1s. You can do it with your manager, peers, even a friend if things have been rocky lately. If you’re a manager , bonus: a similar process works for getting the real dirt on lots of other hairy situations with your team.

I personally wind up doing some version of this at least a couple times a week — sometimes because I got explicit but insufficient feedback, but mostly when I have a feeling that something didn’t go quite as well as I hoped.

The good news is: it gets easier fast. If it’s the second time with the same person, trust grows and it goes much smoother (they know the process now too!). But more importantly, your reputation quickly builds as someone who actually wants to know what they can do better — and that’s a rare and awesome asset.