The Refining Skill of Giving and Receiving Feedback
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
From the beginning of the adventure that we call “NLP,” a communication model was put forward that was so systemic that it actually provided a way for us humans to think about the exchanges of messages as involving “no failure, only feedback.” This incredible paradigm shift arose from Family systems, cybernetics, General Semantics, etc. Accordingly the founders built into the communication model the premise that we never, but never, fail at sending and receiving messages (e.g., communicating), we only get messages and responses. In fact, we only and always get responses. In this, we always succeed! Isn’t that fantastic? We succeed in getting some response even if the response is not expected or wanted. In systems language, feedback is simply data, information, and signals about what’s working and not working.
Any system open to feedback therefore has a way to accelerate learning, development, and performance. This is true for human and non-human systems, living and non-living systems. If we frame feedback as just information, we are light years ahead of those engaged in the trial-and-error learning approach at the School of Hard Knocks.
Why is that? Because of the refining effect of feedback. Via the receiving of sensory-based data about how we are doing, especially while we are doing something, we are able to refine our skills and performance. We are able to adapt and adjust our part of the exchange.
In Meta-Coaching we use a mirror to illustrate the power and nature of feedback. After all, who doesn’t use a mirror every morning in preparation to go out and face the world? We all line up and present ourselves, or at least our faces, to the mirror to see our present state and use it to make adjustments. A clean mirror in a bright and well-lighted room offers sensory-based feedback without judgment, prejudice, or evaluation. It just presents the facts. It reflects what is there rather than what we wish was there! What we do with the facts, well, that’s the dimension of receiving feedback.
For us humans, the eyes and presence of other human beings offers us a mirror. How do we see ourselves, our personalities, our interpersonal strengths and weaknesses? Is it not by the reflection that others give of us? An old Hebrew Proverb speaks about such, using the metaphor of a quiet pool as the mirror: “As in water face answers to face, so the mind of man reflects the man.” (Proverbs 27:19).
Of course, the problem here is that we human beings are not clean mirrors with bright lights. Often what we reflect to others are more like Hall of Mirrors at the sideshow at a carnival or circus. Our reflection is crooked and distorted. What we reflect back speaks more about ourselves than the person gazing into our eyes, heart, and mind. Why is that? What causes this? Primarily our internal conflicts and insecurity. We reflect back according to the state that we’re in. We reflect back to others from the frames of belief, expectation, intention, history, etc. that govern our Matrix. That’s why a strong emotional state of any sort creates distortions. From fear, anger, sadness, guilt, frustration, scarcity, insecurity to even love, joy, playfulness, optimism—they all distort reality.
No wonder we are forever seeking to step aside from all of our states and just observe, just witness what is for whatever it is. While we can never be objective the way a physical mirror can be, we can learn to develop more skill in “losing our mind and coming to our senses” so that we can be more present in an accepting, acknowledging, and seeing objectively. This is the power and magic of being in sensory awareness and being able to communicate in sensory-based terms.
We jump to the evaluative level of consciousness to draw our conclusions, develop our beliefs, come to our decisions, set our intentions, and create our meta-level frames. It is this evaluative level that prevents us from seeing the world and others, and even ourselves, as we truly are apart from all of our frames, internal P.R., images, etc. The evaluative level makes us paradigm-blind thereby preventing us from looking at the brutal facts of the case.
What does it take to suspend all of our meanings, evaluations, and judgments? It takes a lot of ego-strength and that takes a lot of personal security, self-esteem, acceptance, willingness to suspend judgment, and lots of skill and practice. One process we have developed for facilitating this is by the Benchmarking model and processes. By establishing a criteria of agreed upon sensory-based behaviors for various intangible skills, concepts, and principles, we have created an empirically based set of measures. These metrics give us the ability to stay in sensory awareness and sensory-based language as we make our evaluations. It’s not perfect, but it is a big step forward.
With a sensory-based and empirically oriented set of metrics for operationalizing our terms, we facilitate the coaching of our skills and taking our competencies to the next level. And we do so without imposing our own values, beliefs, and agendas on others. This also enables us to empower others who want to give “feedback,” but who don’t know how to separate their judgments from the sensory-based data to which they are responding.
Recently I had several people give me feedback about my leadership style when dealing with a conflict situation. Some were excellent in being able to offer sensory-based feedback from a state of neutrality, “just witnessing,” and mirroring back what they saw and heard at the primary level; others were not. They offered distorted, dark, and convoluted judgments and evaluations. With them I had to help them sort out “their stuff” from the sensory-based data in order to discover what, if any, value there was in their comments.
There were three individuals of the first group. Each approached me and asked if I wanted some feedback. I said “Of course.” Each took the time to set the frame, identify what, when, where, with who, and the specific context. Each then identified in sensory-based behavior what they saw me do and then asked if that was my perspective. Funny thing about mirrors—clean and bright mirrors—the “truth” that they offer works best when it is reflected back with no agenda or hidden motive.
One said, “I noticed that you raised the volume of your voice so that it was perhaps twice your normal volume. And there was a tightness to your vocal chords so that it sounded strained, and you didn’t pause for a response. What was going on for you?”
He was right and I said so. “Yes, that’s correct. I was very frustrated and right on the verge of being angry.”
“What do you think, was the frustration growing into anger appropriate? Was it an appropriate state given the context”
“Yes, I think so. I was really irritated about some utter incompetence in someone’s performance.”
“So someone else’s incompetence pushes your buttons and elicits frustration and anger in you? . . . Do you really think the person is incompetent? And if so, what do you expect from an incompetent?”
Taking a deep breath I realized that I had set a frame in my mind not allowing incompetence in another, and that “intolerance of incompetence” was the value that felt violated. “You’re right. I had expected something other than incompetence from someone clearly incompetent! That’s good feedback. I am noting that and will make that adjustment in my mental frames giving myself permission to put up with incompetence, even incompetence that interferes with what I’m doing. Yes, I know, draw the responsibility for and to line!”
Later, having adjusted to incompetence(!), I found myself again not only angry, but really pissed off. The trigger stimulus this time was “saying one thing and doing another” and putting on a show of integrity while betraying trust and relationship. A well-trained Neuro-Semanticist was my coach that day and reminded me that I was “just having a severe tipping of my Map/Territory Scale to the down side.” Ah yes, the “using my own stuff on me” ploy! Well, it worked. After another several (actually many deep breaths), I was then invited to meta-state the anger with several resources.
“Thanks,” I said later. “I really appreciate that you held me accountable, and especially in the masterful way that you did. You were superb in the way you did that. I now have several new distinctions to incorporate in the expression of my anger. That will make me a better leader.”
So what are you taking away from this?” he asked, again using one of my favorite lines on me, one that I had stole from Michelle Duval. What I realized was that I while had full permission to be with my anger and to express it congruently with tone and volume, it dawned on me that given the cultural frames of the others, they misunderstood that and did not appreciate the congruence. Explaining that I said, “I had never given myself permission to be incongruent. Being congruent and ‘applying to self’ so that I operate from integrity has always been one of my highest values. I now see that there are times when it’s best to not be congruent, but to be incongruent in the expression of some content.”
Those from the dark side of the mirror (it’s just a metaphor!) were not so skilled in their attempts at feedback. One person wrote me and began by saying “You’ve got a real problem!” When I wrote back, I inquired below the attacking judgment, “What are you referring to specifically? How are you coming to that conclusion and evaluation?” In response he wrote, “If you don’t know, you have really got a problem.” Ah, judgment of judgment. Of course, this is the problem with judgments. When we give judgment we give no specifics for what to do. “Having a problem” offers nothing specific. It is not sensory-based and therefore not feedback.
After several exchanges, I picked up the phone to get on with it. It took some doing and some coaching from my side, but finally we got the sensory-based data out on the table and could then sort out the difference between sensory-based information at the primary level and evaluative-based at the meta-levels. His mirror was pretty dusty and dirty, needed a lot of cleaning off with acceptance of emotion, acknowledgment of tone and volume, recognition of different evaluative systems, but he finally made the discernment and thanked me for the patience of working through the process with him.
I can’t say the same for another. The next guy was so stuck in his judgment frames, only some kind of Pentecostal repentance, crying, gnashing of teeth, acknowledgment of his great wisdom would have convinced him that I wasn’t a condemned sinner and doomed to the flames of hell. The distorted mirror that he presented, and came from, was locked in with a fundamentalist fervor that would make a terrorist proud. So I left offering a few mind-lines about his “tremendous skill of imposing his miserable maps on others” and wondered aloud what insecurity could possibly be driving that.
It’s inevitable that sometimes in finding feedback that we can receive and integrate into ourselves we have to really dig through some obnoxious judgments, know-it-all attitudes, and self-righteousness from some people. But that’s the hard way. The easy way is to develop the refined skill of distinguishing fact from frame, sensory-based from evaluations, empirical data that can be seen, heard, felt, etc. from that which are jumps of logic to some meta-level belief or assumption. An even easier way is to surround yourself with good people who also know that distinction, and who have been working to be as clean a mirror as they can and as straight in their communications as possible. Then you have a true support team who will give you high quality feedback.
To a great extent this is what any masterful coach does. The coach who can hear, distinguish, flush out, and explore sensory-based from evaluative based, and can do so from a know-nothing state of just witnessing and holding the client’s space—well, that coach will probably develop a very thriving business. After all, people who are committed to their own growth and development will pay good money to keep updating their sense of self in that coach’s mirror. Given all this, may all of us develop ourselves to be cleaner mirrors who can more accurately reflect back to others what is without judgment or the imposition of our own assumptions.