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Feedback and Friendly Fire

Though it can be intimidating to reach out to strangers for advice and feedback, once that initial hurdle has been passed, the actual interviews with strangers are relatively painless. You have no emotional connection to worry about, no feelings to be hurt on either side. Your feedback source can be candid, and you can ask questions without getting personal.

However, asking strangers/acquaintances for feedback is not risk-free. In fact, you face the same danger with them as with friends and family if they stop paying attention to how well you’re pursuing your goals and start talking instead about how you should be following their goals.

In the military, you are the victim of friendly fire when your own side accidentally attacks you, such as with a poorly aimed air strike. In kind, you’ll know you’re taking friendly fire during a feedback session because you will feel attacked.

Friendly fire isn’t negative feedback. It’s not a caution or unhelpful advice. It’s a scolding or other toxic waste that, if not seen for what it is, can obliterate your confidence in your plans.


The first step to dealing with friendly fire is to realize that the person attacking you, just as in the military, isn’t doing it on purpose. (Unless they’re a scheming monster from hell, which is unlikely.) They’re probably projecting their own fears and other demons onto you, using you to relive their own past injustices and setbacks.

Try to get some distance from your immediate emotional responses (e.g., anger, defensiveness), and salvage this person as a source of feedback through redirection.

Step 1: Stop the Attack

Because the person is trying to be helpful, you can immediately stop friendly fire by bringing it to their attention:

John, I am surprised to hear you say that. I’m already set on this goal, as I told you. I’m hoping to get a broader perspective on my progress, not to debate my decisions. Can we do that? If not, then we should end the conversation.

Use your own words here, of course, but firmly bring the friendly fire to their attention and repeat what you’re looking to accomplish. If they refuse, then the fire isn’t so friendly after all, and you can politely end the session and delete them from your feedback loop.

Step 2: Redirect

“I don’t want to talk about that” is a bad way to steer a conversation. All you’ve done is cut the other person off. Instead, redirect them by bringing up a new topic. And don’t be subtle.

  • Jane, I know you studied ________ extensively. Do you think I should improve ________?
  • Joe, I’m doing ________ now. Based on your experiences, what’s something you think I need to watch for about _________? How did you handle ____________?
  • Judith, you went through program __________, but you said before you didn’t get much out of it. Is there a better program for __________ out there that you know about?

The idea is to get them to talk specifically about themselves because they’ve shown talking about you leads to friendly fire.

Step 3: Never Go There Again

Unless you leave on a really good note and the other person has readily acknowledged their own friendly fire, don’t go back to that person for more feedback. (Though you shouldn’t forget that thank-you note!) Don’t be sentimental. They’re going to continue to look at you as a projection of themselves and of their own hopes and disappointments.