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The way out of prescriptive feedback

A simple framework for alignment and freedom

An illustrative image for this article

I bet you’ve experienced it. You put a ton of thought into something, and present it to someone, looking for feedback. But they crush your dreams. Instead of giving you room to make things better, they prescribe solutions, they tell you what to do.

Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side. Someone on your team is presenting something to you. Deep down you want them to think on their own, to use their talent and experience to find the best solution. But instead, you go and tell them what to do. They’re clearly unhappy and the results are never quite what you expected.

Prescription takes infinite shapes. This button should be red. The right word here is X. You should be using garlic, not onions. It doesn’t matter what you do: prescriptive feedback is likely some part of your daily life.

It literally sucks. It drains the life out of interactions, it removes the passion from any project or relationship. No smart person wants to be told what to do. But then, what can you do?


Well, over the years I’ve developed a dead-simple framework for providing feedback without the prescription, tried and tested across many companies and personalities. Drumroll, please.

Start with why, then illustrate.

I know, it barely seems worthwhile to write 500 words on this. But I’ve seen so many smart people struggle with prescriptive feedback, that this seemed worth sharing. So let me expand.

If you’re giving someone feedback on some sort of output, even if you have a clear idea of what the right solution should be, hold it back. Start with why you think something should be different, getting on the same page as the listener, and then illustrate it with a suggestion. For example:

Instead of

This button should be red.

try

We agreed it’s critical that users know what the primary action is, right? Maybe making this button red will make that clear enough. What do you think?

Instead of

The right word for this is X

try

As you mentioned earlier in this document, differentiation in this market is critical. Perhaps calling it X instead of Y will make us much more unique. What do you think?

The person receiving the feedback gets not only an opportunity to understand how you’re thinking, but also an opportunity to come up with a different solution. This framework:

  1. Aligns you two around goals (or highlights misalignments)
  2. Gives the listener room to explore solutions
  3. Nudges them on what you suspect is a good path (but may not be)

Even if they take a different direction than you suggested, because you’ve aligned on the why, the what is more likely to be good.

Alright, fine, that’s great when giving feedback. But should I do if I’m on the receiving end?

In that case, flip it on its head: when you hear prescriptive feedback, acknowledge it, then ask: “what would you want to accomplish with that?” Extract the why from the illustration. The other person won’t have any option other than explain their thinking. Boom! Now you can provide alternatives which fit their reasoning.

If you can also send them a link to this article ☺


So yeah, it’s silly simple. But super powerful. Try doing this next time you’re giving or receiving feedback. People will be happier, results will be better, smiles will abound.

Got feedback for me? Write me on Twitter or over email.