172 - The difference between informing and evoking


leadership and org culturepersonal development

This newsletter has talked about the difference between feedback and observations. Feedback, especially in professional settings, has got the air of walking on eggshells. It is hard to get it right and harder for it to be consistently effective.

Say you’re talking to a direct report or a friend. Critical feedback to them may feel to them like a witch hunt. They feel judged and blamed and respond by trying to defend themselves tooth and nail.

Making observations that spark off self-reflection in the recipient, on the other hand, is akin to a treasure hunt. You drop clues and let the recipient find the answers to the questions most important to them.

When you’re giving feedback, you’re informing the recipient about something you’ve judged them to be. The trial is over, the arguments have been made. Now the recipient has been called in to listen to the guilty verdict.

When you’re making an observation, there’s no judgment so you’re skipping past the whole trial-conviction shebang. Instead, by sharing your subjective sense, you’re evoking a deeper awareness in the recipient. This is one of the foundational principles in coach training.

I believe this school of thought can be a powerful one in helping build a culture of continuous improvement in groups and teams you lead. It is an improvement upon the traditional sh*t-sandwich feedback, which, no matter how carefully dressed up, tends to not go down well. But if the same recipient discovers something about themselves because of the questions you asked of them, they may thank you for it but they will see it as their own discovery. It will boost their confidence and they are more likely to take responsibility for their actions.

The Johari Window is a framework that helps anyone understand their relationship with themselves and with others. The point is to expand the Known/Open area (shaded below) that is known to both self and others. My theory is that the route we take for this expansion matters.

In the Johari window, your feedback could point the recipient to their Blind Area or your observation could nudge them to their Unknown Area. In both cases, the Known/Open Area expands, but only one is welcome to the recipient.

Life in the Blind Area is disconcerting because of things that others know about us that we don’t. It has the air of being found out. Even when someone offers us information for our own good, we feel ambushed.

Life in the Unknown Area is like discovering a secret drawer in our cupboard. It has the air of finding out. We didn’t know we had it in us. It is a Eureka moment.

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