The Unasked Question: a new perspective on feedback

The idea for this blog is based on something that took place two years before I was born. In time, this led to significant insights into both my personal life and my approach to work.

I was the youngest of four living siblings. My family lived in Israel. Two years before I was born, my parents lost their twelve-year-old daughter, Esther, due to an unsuccessful operation. I can’t call her my sister, though she would have been, had she survived.

Other members of my family spoke about how wonderful and how generous she was. It is hard to tell how much of this was fact, how much of it had to do with the recollected stories that are told after such a traumatic event. What I do know is that it was rarely talked about. And if I would ask my mother, she would provide a vague answer and made it clear that the topic was closed. In any case, I understood that Esther’s death was a central theme, perhaps the central event in the history of my family.

Thirty nine years later I was living in Israel, as was my mother. I was going through a self-reflective stage and a question emerged. It took some time to articulate it to myself but eventually it became clearer. The question that emerged was, “When you were pregnant with me, did you want a boy or girl?” And it was at this moment I discovered the power – and risk – of the unasked question; why not just ask my mother?

At first, she hesitated. Perhaps the fact that many years had passed had made it easier for me to ask and for her to respond. She said that actually, she and my father had considered a termination. She muttered something about the fact that they were poor (which was true). Still, the idea of considering a termination for a very religious family was nothing short of incredible.

As you can see, I am here so there was no termination. I then asked her, “Nevertheless, when you were pregnant, did you want a boy or a girl?”  She said that she would have liked to have a girl. This is what I had anticipated. And that was the end of the discussion.

This is not the place to explore the significance for me of this new information. What is relevant for our purposes is the realisation that we all have unasked questions within us. It often doesn’t occur to us, or feels too risky to ask. Nor do we always identify who we want to or can ask. We often don’t acknowledge or realise that our parents or relatives are tremendous sources of information. And in many cases they would be happy to share their thoughts with us. This is also true as regards our trusted peers. There are so many significant conversations to be had once we begin to identify these possibilities and take a step.

Imagine initiating discussions with your manager or peers about your strengths and weakness at work. There are many who would appreciate such a discussion. I have often seen in my work as a facilitator how taking this initiative encourages a more supportive climate and leads to a fruitful discussions and insights.

In the absence of a face-to-face discussion, there are alternatives that are also beneficial. In my work I sometimes ask the person I am working with to ‘invite’ – in role-play fashion – a significant other to come into the room and give their opinion about what is being discussed. “What would your partner or close friend or manager….think about what you have discussed”? often achieving significant insights.

In my experience, feedback is often based on formal appraisals and lengthy questionnaires, such as 360-degree feedback. These mechanisms can of course lead to beneficial feedback. Yet the unasked question is sometimes a more direct and powerful intervention. I think of it as zero degrees feedback. I believe it is a valuable addition to our skills both as facilitators and as a way of gaining a better understanding of ourselves.

Yaakov Atik is an Oasis Associate Coach and Facilitator