Asking for advice

post by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-05T10:29:12.499Z · score: 85 (39 votes) · EA · GW · 26 comments

Contents

  Why think about this?
  Specifics
    Before seeking feedback
    Making the ask
    Following up
None
26 comments

Recently I’ve been working on team strategy, and have been finding it really useful to get advice and input not just from the rest of 80,000 Hours, but also from others. I find it challenging to get advice on complex strategic questions from people with little context of the work I’m doing in a way which is minimally time consuming for them. I think it’s something I’ve gotten better at over the years, but I don’t remember having read much about it. Since it’s so useful to get feedback on projects, I wanted to write down some of the things which I try to do when soliciting feedback, and ask others to share what’s worked for them.

Why think about this?

How you go about asking for advice on a project can make a huge difference to the people you’re asking. The experience of giving input can vary from costly and annoying to incredibly rewarding. A lot of that depends on factors like how much someone feels their time is being valued, and there are some straightforward ways to affect that.

I find putting time and thought into getting feedback can be frustrating, because it feels so far from the object level of getting useful work done. In my recent case (how to structure 80,000 Hours advising), the project itself is already one step removed from actually talking to people about their careers. And then thinking about how to get feedback on the plans feels even further from the part where I’m actually helping people! But I find it useful to remember that not only will it make it a nicer experience for the person whose time I’m asking for, it’s also going to make it more viable for them to give advice both this time and in future. One of the things I love most about the effective altruism community is how collaborative it is. People support each other not just within their specific organisations, but across the whole community. I really appreciate the feeling that we’re all part of a global team. I want to assist that by allowing people to give advice in a way that’s quick and easy (and pleasant!) for them.


Specifics

Before seeking feedback

Think carefully about who I’m reaching out to and why:

There are a lot of smart, knowledgeable people out there. So sometimes it feels tempting to ask lots of people for advice at once. But that’s typically a worse use of their time than asking the one or two best placed people. I often find it hard to explain what I’m doing and what advice I’m after to people with less context, so their comments are less useful yet it takes them more time and effort to give them (since they have to put in more time to understand the project).

It’s also useful to convey to the person why they’re the one being asked for advice. For example, maybe they’ve done similarly risky projects in the past and you want to know how they mitigated the risk - if you tell them that they’ll know where to focus their advice, so you’ll hear more about the specific thing you wanted. It will also help them feel you value their time.

Figure out what I most need help on:

What are the key assumptions I’m making I most want to check with others? What are my biggest uncertainties with the project, or the parts where I most think people might disagree with me? I have a tendency to want to check everything, and to ask for advice before I’ve gotten clear in my own mind what the crucial uncertainties are. But that makes it very difficult for people to give constructive comments. It also means when they do comment, sometimes the comments are about a part of the project which isn’t that important anyway, whereas maybe a crucial part ends up overlooked because they spent their time on the other part.

Write a concise document summarising my key uncertainties and what I’m looking for feedback on:

Sometimes when I’ve clarified my thinking, it turns out I just want to check a specific assumption with someone. But for cases where I want comments on a whole project, having a write up which is clear and brief is often really useful. This is typically more helpful for the reader than sharing my internal write up (which is usually too long and makes assumptions about context which the reader doesn’t have) or trying to do it all verbally.


Making the ask


Following up

I’d love for people to comment with their thoughts about how they seek advice, and what has gone well (or badly) for them in the past.

26 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jamie_Harris · 2020-09-05T13:40:22.718Z · score: 18 (11 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

+1 for writing a concise document outlining your needs. +1 for personally liking knowing someone is taking notes on what you're saying.

I find it's helpful to be especially clear about the stage of completion that something is. E.g. I've given detailed feedback on draft documents beforehand, only to realise by the end that the document was intended more as an incomplete brainstorm than a finished product. And I've failed to make that clear to others before and received unnecessarily specific feedback.

comment by lynettebye · 2020-09-07T22:21:03.730Z · score: 13 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I find it useful to stagger asking for advice, roughly from easy to hard to access. E.g. if I can casually chat with a housemate about a decision when I just need a sounding board, I'll start there. Once I have more developed ideas, I'll reach out to the harder to access people, e.g. experts on the topic or more senior people who I don’t want to bother with lots of questions.

comment by Ardenlk · 2020-09-05T20:18:15.943Z · score: 8 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wonder whether other people also like to have deadlines asked for for their feedback or have specific dates suggested for meeting? Sometimes I prefer to have someone ask for feedback within a week than within 6 months (or as soon as is convenient), because it forces me to get it off my to-do list. Though it's best of both worlds if they also indicate that if I can't do it in that time it's ok.

comment by jared_m · 2020-09-05T21:33:23.360Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I agree clear deadlines are helpful! The two categories of deadlines I'm most responsive to are:

  • "I'm sorry to ask on short notice, but I'd love your feedback this week..." The acknowledgment that this might result in some reshuffling of plans in order to get to giving feedback/landing a call makes it feel like you're truly helping someone out, which can lead to some warm glow effects. It certainly goes over better than a terse "I'd like to get on the phone tomorrow or as soon as you can this week" - which feels a bit more like a burden.
  • "Sometime in the next 3-5 months, as time allows." The considerateness and flexibility in this sort of phrasing means I probably schedule these calls at least as quickly as the requests that are in the mode of a terse "sometime this month, please."

All the other processes mentioned above seem very sensible to me and I don't have much to add. Perhaps teeing up the key tradeoff you're weighing. For example "I'd like to establish X as a process, but that will cause a lot of hassle in terms of setup time, etc. Are there other pros/cons that come to mind with you about this particular approach or phrasing?" Sometimes that will prime the person to start populating benefits or risks on the +/- ledger that you had missed, and you'll get more-valuable feedback from a busy person than, say, "that sounds good to me!" or "hmm, that process does sound annoying. To be honest I can't think of a better one at the moment, though."

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-06T13:36:43.978Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this post is great.

One thing I'd add

If you’re going to have a call with someone, ask them when would be convenient, and make an agenda before you talk.

I default to sending people a link to my calendly. (And sometimes - especially if there are major timezone clashes - I also say that the person is welcome to suggest times earlier/later than the times in my calendly.) This gives them a lot of room to choose whatever time is best for them, and seems less time-consuming for both me and the other person than exchanging some scheduling messages.

In cases where people reach out to me rather than the other way around, I also prefer using a calendly link (so I send mine if they didn't send theirs first).

I guess it's possible some people would find being sent a calendly link off-putting for some reason, but I haven't seen indications of that so far.

Two actions I plan to take as a result of this post

  1. When seeking input, make more of an effort to figure out what I most need help on and explicitly flag that, rather than just making a more generalised request for input.
    • I think I used to be good at this, but have recently slipped for some reason, so this post was a helpful prompt to get back on track.
  2. When following up with people, briefly explain how people's input was useful.
    • I think I do consistently follow-up, express gratitude, and tell people that their input was useful. But I don't think I'd really thought about how it could be good to tell them how their input was useful, and consequently I think I haven't done that enough.

One thing I'd slightly push back on

Try to make the conversation concise, and to avoid going over the time allocated. I really appreciate when people do this when I’m talking to them, because it means I can focus on thinking through the ideas rather than also making sure that we’re sticking to the agenda and get to everything.

I think it makes sense for this to be the default way one approaches conversations in which one is seeking advice. But I think a decent portion of advice-givers would either be ok with or actually prefer a more loose / lengthy / free-wheeling / non-regimented conversation. 

There have been a few times when I've arranged to talk to someone I perceived as very busy and important, and so I've tried to be very conscious of their time and give them opportunities to wrap things up, but they repeatedly opted to keep talking for a surprisingly long time. And they seemed genuinely happy with this, and I ended up getting a lot of extra value out of that extra time.

So I think it's probably good to be open to signs that one's conversation partner is ok with or prefers a longer conversation, even if one shouldn't assume they are.

comment by Larks · 2020-09-07T15:29:44.786Z · score: 16 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I guess it's possible some people would find being sent a calendly link off-putting for some reason, but I haven't seen indications of that so far.

I actually find it extremely annoying, though I don't know why and I don't particularly endorse this reaction. There have been cases where people have sent me calendlies with zero slots available, or failed to show up for a call I scheduled using it, but I don't think this is the reason. I have actually missed at least one call that should have taken place just because I found calendly so irrationally aversive.

comment by ClaireZabel · 2020-09-09T19:00:38.562Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Huh, this is great to know. Personally, I'm the opposite, I find it annoying when people ask to meet and don't  include a calendly link or similar, I am slightly annoyed by the time it takes to write a reply email and generate a calendar invite, and the often greater overall back-and-forth and attention drain from having the issue linger. 

Curious how anti-Calendly people feel about the "include a calendly link + ask people to send timeslots if they prefer" strategy. 

comment by Ben Pace · 2020-09-09T19:31:06.062Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

My feelings are both that it's a great app and yet sometimes I'm irritated when the other person sends me theirs.

If I introspect on the times when I feel the irritation, I notice I feel like they are shirking some work. Previously we were working together to have a meeting, but now I'm doing the work to have a meeting with the other person, where it's my job and not theirs to make it happen.

I think I expect some of of the following asymmetries in responsibility to happen with a much higher frequency than with old-fashioned-coordination:

  • I will book a time, then in a few days they will tell me actually the time doesn't work for them and I should pick again (this is a world where I had made plans around the meeting time and they hadn't)
  • I will book a time, and just before the meeting they will email to say they hadn't realised when I'd booked it and actually they can't make it and need to reschedule, and they will feel this is calendly's fault far more than theirs
  • I will book a time, and they won't show up or will show up late and feel that they don't hold much responsibility for this, thinking of it as a 'technical failure' on behalf of calendly.

All of these are quite irritating and feel like I'm the one holding my schedule open for them, right up until it turns out they can't make it.

I think I might be happier if there was an explicit and expected part of the process where the other person  confirms they are aware of the meeting and will show up, either by emailing to say "I'll see you at <time>!" or if they have to click "going" to the calendar invitation and I would get a notification saying "They confirmed", and only then was it 'officially happening'.

Having written this out, I may start pinging people for confirmation after filling out their calendlys...

comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-10T11:30:39.822Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing these out. I don't remember people having cancelled calendly times on me, so I assume it hasn't happened at a higher rate than other types of meetings. Really useful to know that that's typically the case, since it understandably puts people off them.

comment by Ben Pace · 2020-09-10T19:17:22.360Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

You're welcome :) 

I don't want to claim it happens regularly, but enough that it's become salient to me that I may spend all this time planning for and around the meeting and then have it be wasted effort, such that there's some consistent irritation cost to me interacting with calendlys. 

But now that I've put in to words some of my concerns, I think I'll generally like interacting with calendly more now, as I'll notice when I'm feeling this particular worry and more pro-actively deal with it. As I said, I think it's a great tool and I'm glad it exists.

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-09T20:24:43.534Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oh, actually that makes me feel better too!

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-10T07:09:45.880Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think I might be happier if there was an explicit and expected part of the process where the other person  confirms they are aware of the meeting and will show up, either by emailing to say "I'll see you at <time>!" or if they have to click "going" to the calendar invitation and I would get a notification saying "They confirmed", and only then was it 'officially happening'.

Yeah, even as an unabashed Calendly-lover I think these things would definitely be improvements. I've thought before that it seems weird that the person whose calendly it is is set to "going" by default, which means the person who booked the time will by default only know that the other person received an email, not that they saw it or plan to be there. 

For this reason, when people book a slot with me, I try to always send a message like "I'll see you at <time>!" But I think it'd be better to have a stronger norm around this, and/or have the person not be set to "going" until they actively click "going".

(It also looks like your comment has gotten a downvote, which seems surprising to me. My small plug for calendly has turned into a much larger and spicier thread than expected.)

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-09T19:09:12.041Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Don't feel great about that, for the same reasons as before - it prioritizes your comfort and schedule over mine, which is kind of rude if you're asking me for a favour.

But like other people, I don't necessarily endorse these feelings, and they're not super strong. It's fine for people to keep sending me calendly links.

comment by HowieL · 2020-09-09T16:36:04.955Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I find it off-putting though I don't endorse my reaction and overall think the time savings mean I'm personally net better off when other people use it.

I think for me, it's about taking something that used to be a normal human interaction and automating it instead. Feels unfriendly somehow. Maybe that's a status thing?

comment by Denise_Melchin · 2020-09-09T18:08:33.850Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Very similar here. I wouldn't quite say unfriendly/status thing, but like a social interaction with a friend got sucked into commercialized business mode ("capitalism ate your friendships!" - definitely not my endorsed reaction, but feels kind of true).

comment by Ben Garfinkel (bmg) · 2020-09-09T17:53:59.426Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would also like to come out of the woodwork as someone who finds Calendly vaguely annoying, for reasons that are entirely opaque to me.

(Although it's also unambiguously more convenient for me when people send me Calendly links -- and, given the choice, I think I'd mostly like people to keep doing this.)

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2020-09-09T18:19:17.458Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe one option would be to both send the Calendly and write a more standard email? E.g.:

"When would suit you? How about Tuesday 3pm or Wednesday 4pm? Alternatively, you could check my Calendly, if you prefer."

Maybe some find that overly roundabout.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-09T19:28:18.443Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think roughly that sort of message is what I'll use from now on, as a result of the (rather unexpected!) data this thread has provided. It still seems to me that Calendly (at least given my flexible schedule) will very likely tend to save both parties time and effectively give them more choice over timings, but I'll provide some particular option alongside the link from now on. 

I think this would also help in cases where the person I'm talking to would feel it's easier to make a decision if one or two options are singled out for them (e.g. Lukas, based on his comment [EA(p) · GW(p)]).

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-09T11:39:49.436Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I find calendly particularly annoying when my interlocutor doesn't seem to make any effort to consider my schedule. For example, if they're asking me for a favour or some feedback, I say okay, and then instead of asking when's good for me they say "Great! Here's my calendly!"

It mostly seems like a status/deference thing.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-09T15:52:37.939Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

These comments are all useful data for me, but I also find them somewhat confusing. Are you referring to cases where the person's calendly is quite full, so you're forced into a narrow range of options?

My calendly is usually quite empty, as my schedule is quite flexible. So I'd hope this comes across to people as being very considerate of their schedule, since they can choose from a very wide range of times and dates. 

Or maybe you find it annoying either way, and it's more like getting sent a calendly link just feels less considerate of your schedule than being explicitly asked when's good for you?

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-09T16:19:57.077Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it's a bit of both. I'm particularly annoyed if someone asks me for a favour and then send a calendly with only a couple slots, or slots that don't make sense in my time zone. I'm very very annoyed if I say "How's Monday at 8?" and they say, "I think that should be fine, can you check my Calendly?"

But overall I think it's a status thing. Instead of starting from my preferences, I'm put in the position of picking which of their preferences is the least inconvenient for me. It's perfectly functional, but I don't get to be the star.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-09T19:34:05.696Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm particularly annoyed if someone asks me for a favour and then send a calendly with only a couple slots, or slots that don't make sense in my time zone. I'm very very annoyed if I say "How's Monday at 8?" and they say, "I think that should be fine, can you check my Calendly?"

Yeah, I think I'd find both of those annoying as well, and the second especially - the second just seems an entirely unnecessary use of calendly anyway, and does seem to fairly strongly signal "Your time is worth less than mine".

Instead of starting from my preferences, I'm put in the position of picking which of their preferences is the least inconvenient for me. It's perfectly functional, but I don't get to be the star.

Interesting. I guess I'd assumed people would instead see it more like me offering them a massive menu that they can pick from with ease and at their convenience. (Well, not really like that, but something more like that than like them having to work around me in a way that puts me first.)

Stefan wrote in another comment [EA(p) · GW(p)]:

Maybe one option would be to both send the Calendly and write a more standard email? E.g.:

"When would suit you? How about Tuesday 3pm or Wednesday 4pm? Alternatively, you could check my Calendly, if you prefer."

Do you think that that option would alleviate this feeling for you? 

comment by Khorton · 2020-09-09T20:23:08.465Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Most likely! I guess we'll just have to test it and see!

comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2020-09-09T13:33:55.596Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have the same!

For me it's the feeling of too many options, that some options may be less convenient for the other person than they initially would think, and that I have to try to understand this interface (IT aversion) instead of replying normally (even just clicking on the link feels annoying).

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2020-09-09T14:27:58.329Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that for many , it's primarily the act of sending a calendly link that is off-putting (for social, potentially status-related, reasons), rather than the experience of interacting with the software. My hunch is that people don't have the same aversion to, e.g. Doodle, which is more symmetric (it's not that one person sends their preferences to the other, but everyone lists their preferences). (But you may be different.)

comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2020-09-10T11:29:24.553Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, I do have this kind of tech aversion. Not to calendly, which I use a lot, but to other similar (and similarly easy to use) interfaces.