My colleague was lamenting the other day about how difficult it often is to get more than a one-word answer from her 9-year-old son when he comes home from school. "How was your day?" she'll ask. "Fine," is the reply. "What did you do today?" "Stuff." "Didn't you do anything interesting?" "No."
It's not that her son is particularly non-communicative; later in the evening (like when it's time to go to sleep) he's full of stories about the day and questions. My colleague realized that when her boy arrives home from school, he simply needs a break from thinking about it, or else wants time to process everything before discussing it.
We agreed that it's not this is not just a nine-year-old boy phenomenon. When we conduct research on behalf of clients, interview grantees and partners, or attend very deep meetings with the intent of documenting the conversations, we also need time and space to let our thoughts and observations swirl and settle. The time we give ourselves to reflect, as either consultants or grantmakers, adds value to our learning. We're able to draw conclusions and make inferences, follow up on lingering questions, and formulate a clearer big picture that helps inform future decisions.
The same is true about gathering feedback about an experience - about a grant initiative, about a conference you've hosted, about reactions to research you've presented, or other situations where you've asked people to process a significant amount of information.
Ask for feedback in the short term, and you're likely to get shorter, knee-jerk, or more constrained answers. Give your audience a chance to rest and reflect, and those answers may very well change, deepen, and resonate with more constructive feedback.
Our instinct often is to ask for immediate feedback so as not to lose those precious thoughts or reactions that people form in the short term. But many times, that's just what those reactions are - short term. Ask people what they learned immediately after a grantmaking initiative closes, and they are likely to share only the lessons or observations from the last few weeks or some version of the project's overall goals. Wait three months, and you'll hear more about the relationships formed, the ideas that they've pursued further, the way their organizations have changed, and where true long-term need still lies.
As an added bonus, once you have a little time under your own belt you'll be able to ask better questions as you solicit feedback - questions that are more likely to elicit the information you need to better communicate the impact of your work and to make better decisions going forward. So next time you're about to push for feedback, take a deep breath, clear your head, and give it a minute!