The most important question few tend to ask.

A couple weeks ago I was asked a question that I tend to get asked frequently, but still love answering every time. The question was:

Would you mind if I get some feedback on something?

To give you some context, this question was asked by a co-worker who had been given feature requirements and designs for the iOS app we’ve been working on, and had just finished up his first attempt. In this case, it was a really slick way to visually represent an upcoming credit card statement.

Excited to see what he had come up with, I jumped in and asked to see the design and his implementation side-by-side. The first thing I naturally responded with was a minor critique:

“It looks really great and polished, but the padding seems off by a few points on the left-hand margin.”

This is when something interesting happened. My co-worker responded in a slightly defensive connotation and said, “Oh, yeah — don’t worry about that. It’s due to the device scale size on the simulator.”

I said, “Oh alright, that makes sense.”

I proceeded with, “It’s exciting to finally see the new icons in the app. Does this icon match the spec for future recurring statements though?”

My co-worker responded with, “No, no, I don’t think so. Don’t worry about that yet either, our designer is still playing with new ideas to communicate future recurring statements.”

I said, “Oh — ok then. Great, looking forward to seeing those.”

Lastly I said, “We’ve used a few sweet-looking color gradients as backgrounds in a couple places across the app — have you tried adding one of those to the background to see what it looks like?”

My co-worker responded with, “That’s the plan, but due to this being the first attempt at this new feature, I didn’t want to worry about that yet.”

By this point, I was starting to feel confused and before I got frustrated I asked:

What specific feedback are you looking for?

My co-worker responded with, “Well, we recently talked about this cool, new way to animate these statements to prevent us from having to show a whole new screen. I was curious what you thought about the transition animation, and if the timing between the collapsed and expanded state seemed smooth?”

That’s when the “ah-ha” moment came.

Flashback to a couple months prior…

I was in the middle of making a significant career decision with multiple options on the table, so I did what most do and started consulting some of my closest friends and family.

During a particular conversation with one of my closest friends, I had called them to lay out the scenario with all of the options, along with my opinion on the pros and cons of the decisions. After setting the entire context of the situation I was in, the first question my friend asked was:

What specific feedback are you looking for?

I paused for a moment and said, “That’s a great question.” It then took me almost the length of time it took for me to originally lay out all of the pros and cons to describe what specific part of the decision I was struggling with — and in turn, seeking advice for.

Since that conversation, I’ve made it a habit to find every opportunity I can to ensure I ask as many clarifying questions as possible when asked for generic feedback, opinions, or advice on something.

By genuinely listening to the question asked and assuring you’re not making any assumptions about the question, you can ensure you provide value by answering the exact question the inquirer intended to ask.

Flash forward to the situation I was faced with at work…

If I would have taken the time before responding to ask, “What specific feedback are you looking for?”, I could have quickly found the root of my co-worker’s question. This avoids any potential unwanted critique from his point of view, along with any unexpected resistance and confusion from my point of view: win-win.

One of my favorite quotes is by Ursula K. Le Guin, which describes this situation perfectly — “There are no right answers to wrong questions.”

When asked for feedback in the future, I encourage you to be conscientious of the vulnerability the inquirer incurs by reaching out to you for help, and ensure they are asking the right question by following up with the most important question few tend to ask:

What specific feedback are you looking for?

P.S. Thanks for reading this far! If you found value in this, I’d really appreciate it if you recommend this post (by clicking the ❤ button) so other people can see it!

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