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Overcoming “North Dakota Nice” on The Quest for Quality Feedback

“Midwest Nice” is a very real thing.

Midwesterners truly care about the people in their communities, whether we know them or not. We’ll hold the door open for most anybody and wave to strangers as they boat past us on the lakes. But we also have a really hard time saying no and are pretty bad with confrontation.

Codelation is headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota, and we seriously love our North Dakota Nice community. The vibrant startup atmosphere, the vast array of events, shops and restaurants that all have personalities of their own, and the way the baristas at our favorite coffee shops know our names are just a few of the best parts of our home.

One of North Dakota’s greatest features is “nice.”

But what do you do when “nice” isn’t what you’re looking for?

For budding entrepreneurs and established businesspeople alike, encouragement is appreciated, but constructive criticism is what truly drives action.

Here are the 5 keys to cutting through the “nice” to get honest feedback.

1. Ask the right people

No matter where you live, we are drawn to people who have a tendency to be agreeable and make us feel good.  

We can all use a pick-me-up from time to time, but it’s important to remember the distinction between feedback that is good, and feedback that makes us FEEL good.

Generally, family and friends will tell us what they think we want to hear. Asking for feedback from people who have little or no personal relationship with us will usually help produce uninfluenced answers.

2. Ask the right question

“What do you think?” vs. “What can I do differently to make this better?”

“Do you like it?” vs. “How can I improve this?”

The way you phrase your questions, especially the initial ones, will set the stage for how people respond to you and the level of honesty in their feedback.

We tend to view feedback as either good or bad. Either someone did something well, or they did not.

Instead, what if we framed our feedback sessions with the focus on there always being room for improvement?

Gaining feedback is an integral part of learning, and it’s important that we emphasize to the people giving us feedback that we welcome their constructive criticism about how we can improve.

“What do you think?” or “Do you like it?” can often sound like a Get Out of Jail Free card. It may even make us seem like we are just seeking a positive, affirming response. “It’s great. I love it!” is an easy way for someone to technically answer your question, but not even come close to giving you the feedback you need.

“What can I do differently to make this better?” or “How can I improve this?” are much better options. Asking questions like these open the floor to constructive, honest feedback that is supported by your obvious desire to learn and improve.

3. Don’t get defensive

The quickest way to stop good feedback in its tracks is to cut off the response in order to explain yourself.

First impressions can make or break the success of your project. If someone is offering their honest assessment, stay out of the way.  There will be time to measure the validity of the feedback later.

Remember that someone’s seemingly wrong opinion could very well be shared by others who just haven’t voiced it. And if not the entire opinion, maybe even one sentence someone said to you could be valuable in the future. Stay open minded without rushing to assumptions or defensiveness.

4. Take lots of notes

The value is in the details. Taking notes during every feedback session allows you to look for patterns, common themes, and even contradictory pieces of feedback you may have received. All of these things can help you take steps to improve.

Try your best not to react to the feedback. Take it for what it is (which is one person’s assessment) and jot it down so that you have a record of the feedback as it was first presented.

Taking detailed notes also shows the person giving you feedback that you are interested in what they have to say. Of course, our brains can only remember so much, so it is imperative that we document what was told to us or we risk forgetting it, even though we always claim we won’t.

You will need to call upon these valuable notes when we get to the next step: digging deeper.

5. Lean into their response – dig deeper!

Once the initial reaction has been documented, now is the time to dig deeper.  

Explore their comments. Explain your reasonings.

Does what they heard jive with what you were trying to say? If not, try to explain again. When they do understand what you are trying to communicate, ask where you lost them and if they have any suggestions for how you can better present your information.

It is, of course, also possible that they simply may not be interested in what you are saying.  Perhaps they haven’t experienced the problem you are attempting to solve, or perhaps your solution seems to be more of an inconvenience than the problem is.

In these situations, undoubtedly some feelings of disappointment will begin to bubble up, but all is not lost.

This is just one piece of feedback of the many you will need to validate your product or idea, and knowing who wouldn’t be interested in your product is almost as valuable as knowing who is.

If your feedback happens to reveal that there is no interest in your product, it may feel disappointing to have dedicated so much time to an idea at a dead end. However, there is value gained from sessions of honest feedback no matter the outcome, in addition to the value of avoiding investing money and time into continuing an unsuccessful idea.

Bringing back the North Dakota Nice

Whatever the feedback you got and whoever it was from, be sure to sincerely thank them for their honesty with you.  

Remember, it can be a difficult task to share honest opinions on an idea that is driven by someone’s passions.

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