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There Is a Better Way for Students to Ask for Feedback (Opinion)

What’s the best way to find out how you can improve?

Some methods can be more effective than others. Here’s an excerpt from my new book Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, which I published recently at Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

The message from my body came through loud and clear: You do not belong here. Between the sweat drenching my shirt and the butterflies in my stomach, I had no business being onstage.

As a graduate student, I was determined to get over my fear of public speaking, so I volunteered to give a series of guest lectures in my friends’ undergraduate classes. I needed their input to learn. But when I asked those friends for feedback afterward, they came back with vague compliments. Interesting content. Enthusiastic delivery.

When they have helpful input, people are often reluctant to share it. We even hesitate to tell friends they have food in their teeth.

Instead of seeking feedback, you’re better off asking for advice. Feedback tends to focus on how well you did last time. Advice shifts attention to how you can do better next time. In experiments, that simple shift is enough to elicit more specific suggestions and more constructive input.

People sometimes worry about coming across as insecure, but seeking advice doesn’t reveal a lack of confidence. It reflects respect for another person’s competence. When you seek their guidance, people judge you as more capable. You’re a genius! You knew to come to me!

Don’t ask how you did yesterday. That invites people to act like cheerleaders celebrating your best self or critics attacking your worst self.

Do ask how you can improve tomorrow. That motivates people to become coaches who see your hidden potential and help you become a better version of yourself. And model effective coaching to young people by being forthcoming in what you say and respectful in how you say it. Show them how easy it is to hear a hard truth from someone who believes in their potential and cares about their success.

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