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Blind Spots and the power of Observational Feedback

We often hear phrases like “I need to give Paul some feedback”, by which we immediately understand that Paul must have somehow messed up. Depending on the tone, we may feel some sympathy for either Paul – who is going to get “whipped” – or for the manager - who will likely have to face a string of denials, rebuttals and resentment. But does it have to be like that? Not really.

The technique known as Observational Feedback is frequently used in the academic and teaching worlds, but only occasionally in peer coaching, seldom in business consulting and only rarely in people management. And yet it is one of the most effective ways to engage people in their own development as well as to positively influence their professional growth.

Imagine the following situation: you are invited by your colleague Emma to join a meeting with a Key Client; Emma brings along a young associate, Jimmy. In the middle of the discussion, Jimmy offers a comment, but Emma abruptly silences him and continues the discussion, oblivious of Jimmy´s awkward expression. You feel sorry for Jimmy and decide to bring it up after the meeting. What do you tell Emma?

  1. “You should really watch your behavior, you never give space to anybody else, the kid was really upset that you did not let him speak”
  2. “I noticed that you interrupted Jimmy in the middle of a comment; was it intended? I also noticed that the Client seemed puzzled and that Jimmy withdrew, did you notice?”
  3. “What was THAT all about?! You crashed the kid´s confidence, you have been rude and totally insensitive!”

Comment “b” is an example of Observational Feedback. It consists of a factual observation (I noticed you interrupted) and it is offered as a selfless gift to a person, without any attached expectations of provoking a change. The observation is sometimes complemented by mentioning possible consequences or related observed reactions (the Client seemed puzzled and Jimmy withdrew). Depending on the relationship, one can also show some curiosity and offer an opening to talk about it (did you notice? was that your intention?)

Observational Feedback is very useful because it offers something that others know about you, which you may not be aware of by yourself: something that we call the Blind Spot. It is anincredibly generous gift to give and to receive and it is a real shame that we often pollute it with unnecessary advice or judgment.

In our example, comment b. gives Emma the extremely useful opportunity to reflect upon what was observed by others, that she might not be aware of, and to compare it with her own intentions.

Let´s explore a little bit more to find out what this means.

Let´s assume that Emma really intended to be blunt with Jimmy (after all, they had agreed upfront that he would just listen and refrain from offering comments, given his relative inexperience with the complexities of the deal), yet in her preoccupation to prevent a possible misunderstanding, she had not paid attention to the Client´s reaction and had thus missed the cue that the Client was puzzled by her abrupt behavior.

Or maybe her intention had not been to undermine Jimmy´s comment; she had done it without even thinking, so stressed she had been and focused on her own comments.

In either case, the Observational Feedback is precious in bringing up something that she not been aware of, which can help adjust her behavior the next time around.

We can now better understand what is “wrong” with comments “a” and “c”: we make assumptions based on our perception, without knowing what is the real intention of the person, we give unrequested advice that tends to irritate or judgment that can be rather offensive, all together shifting attention away from the key message.

So in net, this is how we give really useful Observational Feedback:

  • We speak in a respectful way, to the point, concise and direct
  • We speak as peers (also to a subordinated or a boss)
  • We focus on our own factual observations and stand by them (observations are neither right nor wrong, they are our own observations)
  • We do not expect nor demand any reactions; this is a selfless gift
  • We may also share our personal concerns, describing observed or potential consequences, without stretching or indulging into drama.
  • We leave it to the receiver to decide what to do with the feedback and we leave the door open to talk.
  • We refrain from giving advice in any form (e.g. “you should / should not”; “if I were you I would”; “one must always remember to”)
  • We watch out for judgmental calls; we do not comment on something that we do not like, only on something that we think the other person is not aware of, but would like to know.
  • We do not express evaluation or judgment (good or bad) and do not make assumptions about the intention of the other person (I call it “always giving the other the benefit of the doubt”)

Does it all sound obvious yet hard to remember and apply? Are old habits of reprimanding and advising hard to subside? You are not alone! Giving effective feedback is “top of the list” in leadership development wishes for most executives. All it takes is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and PRACTICE!

Do you want to know more?
Do you wish to learn and practice effective feedback techniques?

Grooa offers a variety of workshops and courses to learn and practice

Contact us for more information or a free consultation at info@grooa.com

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