Discover the True Essence of Feedback
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Given that feedback is important, that it is critical, that it gives us an accelerated learning mechanism, and that it activates our self-organizing powers, receiving feedback and giving high quality feedback is critical for leadership, management, coaching, entrepreneurial ventures, parenting, loving,— and, in fact, for everything relational!
Yet when it comes to what we call “feedback,” when are words and comments true feedback and when are they something else? When are the words and comments of others judgments, hallucinations, mind-reads, insults, put-downs, slander, libel, and projections? The fact is that not everything called “feedback” is feedback.
∙ If a person slanders another and then says, “Hey, it’s just feedback!” does that make it feedback?
∙ What then is “feedback” anyway?
∙ What are the qualities and conditions of high quality feedback?
The metaphor that I like that best explains this is that feedback is like a mirror. A mirror feeds back to us what is there without bias or prejudice. Well, a well-constructed mirror that’s in good light and that’s clean does. I’m not talking about the distorted mirrors that we find at a circus. We don’t use those kinds of mirrors in our bathrooms. We use such mirrors only for the laughter and fun of the distortions they create. A clean mirror in a bright room simply and solely feeds back what we present.
So feedback is a clear reflection of what we present. As such, feedback is sensory-based information. If the data someone offers is not specific, empirical, behavioral and sensory-based, it is not feedback. It is something else.
This brings us to another key term, to a word that’s the backside of feedback, feed forward. As a verb and process, this speaks about what we put forth from ourselves. This is the other half of the loop of communication. In communicating, someone feeds forward to us something that they have seen, heard, felt, evaluated, experienced. We bring it in as information. But is the information about them or us, or a mixture of both? It is feedback or projection?
It is nearly always a mixture. They are responding to the stimuli and triggers that we offer and they are feeding forward their own judgments, prejudices, beliefs, values, understandings, histories, hallucinations, etc. Very seldom do we receive pure feedback uncontaminated by the other’s “stuff.” That’s why the Meta-Model of language, as a precision tool, enables us to ask questions about the information to sort out the “stuff” that comes from them, and has nothing to do with us, and the sensory-based reflections from which they have drawn their conclusions and interpretations.
Learning how to give high-quality sensory-based data describes a very high level skill that can make one a truly professional communicator. To not even know the difference between sensory-based data (a trigger, experience, words, tones) and our personal interpretations of that data or experience means that we respond to others and to life in general assuming that “the world out there” is the same as our maps about that world. This is the map/territory confusion wherein people identify their thinking, feeling, and mental mapping of beliefs with experience.
Giving high-quality feedback to another is to become like a mirror and only reflect the sensory based components and variables that another could video-tape. Doing that in behavioral language, with precision, tentatively, in a timely manner and from the context of rapport —well, that is truly what it means to be a professional communicator. This is, why we have made giving feedback one of the 7 core coaching skills that we benchmark in the Meta-Coach Training system.
Because most people do not have this skill, and especially when they try to communicate when in stress, the other side of the matter is asking questions that help them in being precise, to identify the sensory data to which they are responding, and to squeeze what value we can from their judgments and evaluations. Again, this is not easy and not a common skill and describes someone who can really maintain state while defusing someone’s upsetness and anger, even attack, and keep asking for specificity in their complaints. This describes the art of receiving feedback —another one of the 7 core coaching skills that we have benchmarked.
All of this is well and fine when theorizing, but perhaps you may be wondering, “Well, how are you at these skills? How skilled are you at giving and receiving true feedback? How do you respond when someone gives you feedback?”
My answer, “It’s in development and has been for years.” I began my journey into this realm of distinguishing map and territory, sensory data from interpretation and judgment when I became a Cognitive Therapist. At the time I was using RET (Rational Emotive Therapy) as my model and that enabled me to identify and distinguish the ten key cognitive distortions that we all suffer from. I then began a ten-year experience of training communication skills (even wrote a book on the subject, Speak Up, Speak Clear, Speak Kind, 1987) where I first learned what true feedback was. That’s when I found NLP which took my awareness and skills to another level.
NLP gave me the final pieces that I needed to bring my consciousness down to the specific details at the sensory level and to distinguish interpretation and judgment. For the most part, my strength lies in making that distinction, even in conflict, and being able to stay with someone and ask the questions of specificity. My weakness is that I often forget that most people find this either confusing (they don’t know what I’m doing in that moment) or intimidating.
What I’m working on even today is how to keep coming back to re-create rapport through support, gentleness, slowing my speech down, showing compassion while trying to Meta-Model the hell out of the judgments and interpretations. That’s my challenge. What I so often forget is that using the drilling down questions by which we can create KPIs (key performance indicators) for a coaching session, or for a business outcome, works differently when applied in the personal realm. Apparently in the personal realm, most people find the drilling down questions intimidating. Because I don’t, I tend to forget that others do. I so much value the probing, exploring, meta-modeling questions that I lose consciousness in the midst of such fierce conversations that others can feel completely out of their league or judged or put on trial or under pressure. So that’s what I’m still working on.
The magical fact about true feedback is that sensory based data invites, allows, enables, and facilitates self-correction. Again, think about your bathroom mirror. A good clean mirror in bright light doesn’t do anything to you, yet with that reflection of current reality, we prime and primp and prepare ourselves for the day. The corrections we make to face, hair, and clothes occurs naturally, smoothly, and gracefully. Isn’t that marvelous? Change occurs with ease of effort so that we hardly even notice it when we get sensory data— true feedback. Sensory data activates our self-organizing mind-body system so that we move toward a successful outcome with the minimum of effort and almost no self-consciousness.
That last statement, “almost no self-consciousness” is the key. When we receive pure reflections about what is (feedback), there’s no fight with the mirror. There’s no arguing with the reflection. We know that it is what it is. So we simply do something about it.
What creates painful self-consciousness that interferes with all of this is when the mirror does not reflect what is, but projects onto another its own judgments and distortions. When that happens, we fight. We resist. We argue back. We will have none of it! That is precisely what any evaluation or interpretation does to us humans—it imposes upon us, not what is, but the other person’s judgments, values, advice, and “stuff.” We won’t have any of it. So we push back.
How do I take feedback? Feedback I love. Of course, you now also know what I mean by feedback. I love it when someone provides me sensory based feedback. Oh, you want an example? Okay. Michelle recently said that sometimes when I’m making a point I raise the volume and tone of my voice so that others can more easily interpret it as anger or aggression. The first time she said this, I didn’t think it was so. When she said it a second time, she explained what she thought about it and how someone could interpret it in that manner. So I made a decision, “Okay, I will turn it down.”
And after that, 95 percent of the time I did tame my energies. Then some stresses occurred, and as with most of us, I defaulted to my masterful skill of raising my voice and altering my tone! Again, Michelle provided feedback to the effect that what I was doing was not achieving my higher intentions. So I invited her to do a shoulder tap to cue me whenever that occurs in real time so I could immediately become cognizant of it. She did, and by providing that mirroring feedback, I was able to immediately shift volume and tone.
Even though I know of no heritage back to Rome, I must at least be Italian at heart given the way I talk with my hands and raise my voice when excited or frustrated. Both expressions are just expressions of intensity of feeling and nothing more. From what I can tell, however, most people in Western cultures associate these expressions with anger and aggression, even attack. I do not, nor do my Italian friends!
What does it mean to me? It means excitement or frustration, that’s all. That’s how I interpret it. Perhaps the Defusing Hotheads trainings and working with the Department of Corrections in facilitating anger control with men coming out of Federal Corrections and boys locked up for violent crimes, and experiences has desensitized me to the mere sensory information of hand movement and raising of voice or changing tone to one of more definitiveness. Upon getting the feedback about the sensory data (e.g., raised voice) and the information that other interpret it in different ways provided me the kind of high quality feedback to change, to make adjustments.
All of this underscores a critical difference between primary and meta levels.
Feedback communicates at and about the primary level about the real world of energy forces, actions, behaviors, empirical things we can see, hear, and touch. Feedback refers to actual performance and demands a detailing down to specifics which, in turn, then leads to precision language skills. If there’s a real-world performance, there can be actual feedback.
Evaluation communicates at some meta-level about our interpretations, judgments, understandings, beliefs, history, imaginations, fears, dreads, hopes, etc. Evaluation never describes to the outside world and the performances that occur there. Evaluation reflects the inside world of our responses and reactions to the outside world and to our reactions of our reactions. Where there is feedback of our performance (or someone else’s performance) in the real-world, there can then be evaluation of that feedback. No feedback, no knowledge or awareness of what happened. Once we know what happened, then we can begin to interpret and evaluate it.
What’s the bottom line? If we want to get feedback from the meta-phenomenon of evaluation, we have to bring it down to earth. We have to meta-model the precise referents and discover what in the real world and in performance the person is referring to. To fail to do that dooms us to just hallucinating, mind-reading, and meeting people at our model of the world. And when we do that, we become blind to the other person. But to do it—ah, here’s where the magic begins. When we distinguish evaluation and feedback, we can identify the key performance indicators of excellence and measure where we are in the process of our competency development, and then take our skills to the next level. Now isn’t that magic worth it?