It’s no secret that the feedback we share with others fails to bring about positive and lasting change. By some estimates, people ignore our feedback nearly 70% of the time. There are lots of reasons why – it’s not specific, too infrequent, and tinged with rater bias. But there’s also a subtler problem, much less discussed but no less destructive: When giving feedback, people have a tendency to act like window-gazers, not mirror-holders.
Window-gazers look at their surroundings and tell others what they see. Their view is one-sided and selective. When they size up others, window-gazers already know what they’re looking for and where to find it. And because their field of vision is hyper-focused, they tend to lose sight of everything else within view. Window-gazers tend to give specific but myopic feedback about another person’s work. Often, it’s narrowly focused, subjectively framed, and limited in its perspective. It captures only part of the performance picture – the part that the window-gazer managed to see.
Mirror-holders, on the other hand, deliberately shield their view. Unable to see past the mirror’s opaque backside, mirror-holders can’t dictate where to look or even what’s in sight. Any meaningful information must come from the person on the other side. Mirror-holders give feedback with only one goal in mind: to guide others towards a self-discovered view of their own performance – the part that’s staring right back at them.
Or to put it another way: Window-gazers tell others what to see. Mirror-holders challenge others to see it for themselves.
When people give feedback as a mirror-holder, they do a lot more asking and a lot less asserting. Their feedback is guided by questions instead of assumptions. Rather than push a plan of correction, mirror-holders prompt others to suggest their own ideas for improvement. This takes the pain out of giving feedback by shifting its focus from accusation to inquiry and deescalating conflict through dialogue. It takes a coach approach to feedback that leads to highly desirable outcomes, like helping managers empower their teams or guiding teachers to improve student achievement.
The best feedback is the kind that helps others understand their strengths and provides the encouragement and guidance to build on those strengths. Mirror-holders create the conditions for positive and lasting change. They help others to discover a better version of themselves – not necessarily the person they see at first, but the person they were always meant to become.
Joe Hirsch is the managing director of Semaca Partners, a boutique communications firm, and the bestselling author of “The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future, and Lead the Way to Change,” now available from Rowman & Littlefield.