Listen Like You’re Behind a One-Way Mirror

Or, Why you shouldn’t talk during your own critiques

An encore post from 2014.

Have you ever been part of a focus group? Eight to twelve participants are ushered into a conference room to sample and react to a product or to discuss a topic or issue. A moderator is there to ask questions, gather opinions, and keep the discussion on track.

Behind the moderator is a one-way mirror, reflecting the people in the room and shielding whoever is behind it from view. The hidden observers aren’t secret—the moderator tells the participants they’re back there—but ideally, the participants quickly forget about them.

A focus group discussion room; the mirror framed in red hides a viewing room
A focus group discussion room; the mirror framed in red hides a viewing room

As a developer of educational materials for publishers, I’ve been behind that one-way mirror more times than I can remember, watching and listening while teachers review classroom materials that are still in an early draft, sharing how they think their students would respond to the materials, and whether they’d consider using them in their own classrooms.

Here are the kinds of things that run through your head while you’re sitting behind the one-way mirror hearing teachers discuss a textbook or web site:

Oh no, I don’t think they get it! Let me explain—wait, I can’t explain. I’m back here, behind the mirror. Someone asked a question. Why didn’t the moderator answer it? Oh right—we’re here to see what people think about the book when there isn’t anyone there to explain it. We’re here to see if they like it even if they don’t know who made it. We’re here to find out if they’d even give it a second glance if no one was paying them to look at it.

Sound familiar? It should.

A critique group is kind of like a focus group. The purpose of both is to gather thoughtful responses to a work in progress, to get a range of reactions, to gather suggestions for making it stronger before you offer it up to potential readers. As a critique group leader, I try to follow the model of a focus group moderator, whose job is to gather unbiased, honest responses from the participants, without explaining the creators’ intent.

Taking a page from focus group moderators

Every focus group I’ve observed has started with the moderator setting ground rules for discussion. These are also great ground rules for a critique group discussion:

  • speak clearly so everyone can hear you
  • only one person talks at a time
  • make sure everyone gets a chance to speak
  • stay on topic
  • be specific about what you like, what you don’t like, and why
  • share your opinion, even if you’re the only one in the room who has it
  • respect the opinions of others; do not try to make them agree with you
  • Understand that we are not here to come to any kind of consensus. We’re here to share reactions and opinions, and yours is as important as anyone else’s. We don’t have to agree—in fact, the discussion can be more helpful if we don’t.

These guidelines provide for a thoughtful, thorough discussion of the work at hand. The creators hear a range of opinions and suggestions from people with a variety of relevant viewpoints.

One thing a focus group moderator says to the group, that I can’t:

  • No one in this room made anything you’re looking at tonight, so don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings, just give your honest opinion.

In a critique group, this isn’t true. The creator is sitting right there at the table. The risk of hurt feelings runs high, especially for someone whose work is under the microscope for the first time. And yet the need for honest responses is every bit as great. We’re gathered to help someone improve their work, and that can’t happen if we offer only praise. The most effective critiques follow the “sandwich” guideline, which is, “Share what is working well with the manuscript or illustration, then share what needs to be strengthened, and end with something that is working well.” Not only is this important—the creator needs to know what’s good, so he or she keeps doing it—this approach also helps keep spirits high.

One thing that I say to the work’s creator, that a focus group moderator doesn’t have to:

  • You are here to listen. The less you say, the more you will hear.

Why doesn’t the focus group moderator say this? Because the people who’d need to hear it can’t join the conversation. They’re behind that one-way mirror, sitting in silence in the dark, watching and listening while total strangers dissect the work of months, chewing their fingernails and gobbling M&M’s (every focus group viewing room I’ve ever visited has bowls of M&M’s candies) and scribbling down panicked questions they wish they’d thought of sooner, that they hope to give to the moderator to ask the group if—and only if—there’s time left for questions at the end of the discussion.

Small View from Viewing Room
Observers sit behind the one-way mirror; they can watch and listen, but can’t join the discussion.

Want to get the most out of your next critique? Pretend you’re behind a one-way mirror.

During a critique, you have the chance to find out how your work stands on its own. You have the opportunity to hear readers analyze a character’s motivations, wonder what will happen next, share how the work makes them feel, and guess at the author’s intentions. The less you say, the fewer questions you ask and answer, the more comments you’ll hear in response to your work—not in response to you.

And if there’s time at the end of the discussion, you can still ask your questions—or maybe even answer a few.

What approach do you think works best for giving and receiving a critique? Join the conversation in the comments section. Dissent welcome!

Photos: Market Decisions, Portland, Maine, U.S.A.

26 comments

  1. This is a wonderful post. I’ve been on both sides of a focus-group mirror, so I’m familiar with the process. I attended a wonderful conference at the Highlights Foundation last year and one of the leaders set ground rules like this for our critiques. She pointed out that writers can’t respond or explain things to readers when they’re reading our book. We simply thanked each person for her critique. I try to maintain that mind set now whenever I have something critiqued.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mary, thanks so much for the compliment. And it’s so affirming to hear that someone at the renowned Highlights Foundation agrees! It seems to work well to stay quiet, at least whenever I’ve managed to do it.

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  2. Spot on analogy, Marianne! It’s tempting to want to jump in and explain your work. But the benefit of the critique, the very definition, is accepting feedback from others. Great article.

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  3. Great post, Marianne! I think you are absolutely right. There is so much to be learned by listening, especially when people disagree! Love this comparison. Thank you for being a great leader too!

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  4. Excellent, Marianne! I love the visual of the one-way mirror and would love to share this with my SCBWI Chapter, if you will allow me to. They may want to reblog this or put a link to it near the registration for our next critique event. Let me know what you think. Thanks for painting an easy-to-understand picture. I think it will really help those that are new to critiquing.

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      1. Yes, Marianne, a reblog links back to the post. There is an option right under your article for reblogging. I have suggested either a link or reblog to our RA, and will let you know if she decides to use it. 🙂 Thanks!

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  5. Terrific post. I had a writing teacher in graduate school who ran critiques so that writers could not speak until everyone in the class had delivered their critiques. It was so hard and so good. You might consider sending this article to SCBWI magazine or one of the writers’ magazines. Thanks for sharing it here.

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    1. Once in awhile our Writers’ Rumpus group has tried that approach–no conversation until everyone had shared something, and no talking by the critiquee until the end. I do think it helps, but well, we are something of a rumpus, and the critiquers often build on each others’ suggestions, so that approach doesn’t usually last!

      Thanks for the vote of confidence on the article, Rosi. I hadn’t thought about sending it anywhere but here.

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  6. Great analogy Marianne. I get a lot out of a critique group when someone is willing to play the role of devil’s advocate, asking a lot of “What if” questions that elicit support for strengths or suggest new directions.

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    1. Thanks, Jennifer! Yes, it’s very difficult in practice, but well worth the effort. I’ve seen critiquers turn to other critiquers when the author doesn’t answer, to discuss the work, with brilliantly helpful results.

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