By Craig Hickman (@HickmanCraig), Futurist and Senior Vice President of New Product Development

Imagine drilling down to the Earth's core. You penetrate layers and layers before you're even halfway down. That's what you do when you probe a customer's concerns and beliefs: you drill through layer after layer of needs and desires until you get to the heart of the matter, the core of their concerns, the essence of their beliefs.

It's not easy. Getting into someone's deepest concerns and beliefs can make both of you feel uncomfortable. When you ask for honest feedback, you almost always hear something unexpected, even embarrassing. People naturally avoid difficult conversations and honest answers that might hurt someone's feelings or cause them distress, preferring instead to offer superficial remarks or solutions. "Those invisible clothes fit you perfectly, Your Majesty. No, don't go to any trouble, I like my coffee lukewarm."

Feedback doesn't have to be uncomfortable. In fact, over the past thirty years Partners In Leadership has learned what works and doesn't work when it comes to receiving and giving feedback. We've broken down the feedback exchange into a process with three stages. Then we compiled a list of questions and responses to guide you through every stage.

Although we've tailored these responses to one-on-one feedback sessions, they apply to most group situations as well.

The Opener: Creating a Safe Environment

You want to create the right non-threatening setting for a feedback session. Context matters.

"Do you mind if we change the subject for a minute? There's something important I want to ask you." Ask for feedback at the beginning or end of a customer visit, but not as a mere warm-up or afterthought. Avoid doing it when emotions are running high. Fear and anger tend to make people deaf to what the other person is trying to say.

"May I take a few minutes to speak privately with you?" Invite feedback in a quiet, private setting. An office with a closed door, a corner table in a restaurant, or a walk in the park permit the privacy people need to feel comfortable letting down their hair and revealing their innermost thoughts.

"Could you spare a few more minutes to chat with me?" Allow sufficient time for an open and honest conversation. You can't accomplish much in less than fifteen minutes. People will not open up if they feel rushed or backed into a corner when asked about their true feelings.

"Can we do this again?" Clarify the fact that you are not doing this as a one-off experience but want to make it a normal and regular part of your interactions. This makes your customer feel more relaxed and allows her or him to prepare for the next feedback session.

The Exchange: Remaining Humble

Communicate to your customer that you need to hear the unvarnished truth, making it clear that you are receptive to the feedback. You sincerely want to do a better job but can't improve your performance unless you understand your shortcomings. Most sales professionals exude self-confidence. It may take some effort to show your humble side.

"I'm working on my communication skills and need your help." Reveal a skill or behavior you want to strengthen. When you admit to a flaw or mistake, you put the other person at ease. Humility engenders trust and makes it easier to speak frankly. Most people will gladly offer advice to someone who humbly asks for help.

"I need your help understanding what I could have done better the last time we met." Invite analysis of a recent interaction with the customer that did not go particularly well. When you shine a light on how your contribution was less than satisfactory, you free the customer from feeling that he or she did something to sour the relationship. An apology can go a long way to opening up an honest discussion.

"I value our relationship and will do everything I can to make it better." Emphasize the positive. If you stress only the negative aspects of a situation, they will probably feel defensive. It's a lot easier to analyze a problem after you've talked about what has gone right in the past.

"What more can I do?" Restrict the conversation to you and what you can do better. Any hint that you blame someone else for your weaknesses communicates insincerity and insecurity to the customer.

The Closer: Responding with Gratitude

Regardless of what you hear, especially if you strongly disagree with what the customer is saying, you want to let your customer know that you deeply appreciate their feedback. It never hurts to say "Thank you for sharing."

"I think highly of you and take everything you say seriously." Let your customer know that you respect their opinions and will consider them carefully. When you show someone respect, they tend to repay you in kind.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate your taking time to see me." Say up-front that you are grateful that the customer will spend their valuable time with you. A person who feels valued also tends to reciprocate that feeling.

"That's such a good point. I wish I'd thought of it before." Pause occasionally to confirm that you are listening to and really hearing what your customer is telling you. When you repeat an important point, you drive home the fact that you are taking the feedback seriously. Thank the customer for each and every good point he or she makes.

"You've given me a lot to think about." Promise that you will think about everything you have heard. When you list the takeaways, tell the customer how much you appreciate the insight, even if you disagree with it. This gives new meaning to the cliché, "The customer is always right."

Creating Results and Shaping Change

Someone once asked Pope John Paul about the secret to a good marriage. He summed it up in five short words that apply to any good relationship: "Please, thank you, I'm sorry." If you build those words into your vocabulary, you will find it a lot easier to get the sort of feedback that can guide you to greater success as a sales professional.

Craig Hickman, author of seventeen books including bestsellers The Oz Principle, Creating Excellence, Mind of a Manager Soul of a Leader, and The Strategy Game, is a Harvard MBA with honors, former CEO of Headwaters Technology Innovation (HW:NYSE), founder of the consulting firm Management Perspectives Group, and currently Futurist and Senior Vice President of New Product Development at Partners In Leadership, the premier provider of Accountability and Culture Shaping services worldwide.