The Neuro-Semantics about Giving and Receiving Feedback

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

“Mistakes are toothless little things if you recognize and correct them.

If you ignore or defend them, they grow fangs and bite.”

(Dee Hock, 1999, Birth of the Chaordic Age, p. 280)

Champion Food

We’ve all heard the jingle, have we not? “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Athletic champions use sensory-based feedback information from every attempt during both practice and in actual performance of the sporting event to mark and measure their progress. This provides top-notch quality information. It provides coaching information about how to refine and hone the skills and take those skills to the next level.

What is feedback? How can we most resourcefully think about and frame feedback? Seeing feedback as data or information resulting from an action, behavior, speech, or response powerfully enables us to gauge and read what happened with our previous attempts to do something or communicate something. Framing feedback as data allows us to ask awareness questions like the following:

  • How close or far did I come from my targeted outcome?
  • How well did I perform?
  • How much better can I increase my performance?
  • To what degree or extent did I succeed?
  • What else can I do to take my performance to the next level of skill and competency?

Feedback as information re-enters our mind-body-emotion system to give us cues and clues about what to do next. That’s what makes feedback magical. We can then use our criteria to make an evaluation about how to adjust our behaviors to get an even better performance. It is in this way that we keep honing and refining and moving ourselves, bit by bit, to star performances. Such feedback serves as the actual feedback mechanism for kaizen, that is, for continuous improvement.

No Failure, Only Feedback

In NLP we have another jingle, it’s one of our best sound bites, “There is no failure, there is only feedback.” I don’t know who came up with that one originally, but it’s a great line for changing the mind about feedback. This statement both summarizes the theoretic framework of NLP and Neuro-Semantics and it offers a presupposition for success, effectiveness, and mastery. This frame is one of the most dynamic attitudes that every expert espouses. Whether in business, wealth building, athletics, education, therapy, parenting, or whatever, taking misses, errors, mistakes, and non-succeeding attempts as feedback information rather than personalizing about failure, inadequacy, worthlessness, and stupidity empowers us to persist, to keep learning, and to be resilient. What a powerful meta-state frame of mind! It makes for resilience, commitment, and optimism.

In communication, the “responses” we get from others give us information about the interaction between our communication of words and gestures and the other person’s filtering matrix. In interpersonal communication feedback is never 100% about the sender, it is also partially about the receiver. The percentages in feedback are relative and always shifting. It may be 20% about the sender and 80% about the receiver. It might be 60% of the sender and 40% about the receiver.

This is where the distinction of sensory-based and judgment-based feedback becomes crucial. What kind of feedback does another person offer? There are two broad categories that we can discern.

  • Sensory-based feedback information is given in see-hear-feel terms. It’s empirical. You can put the referent on a table or video-tape it. As terms that describe the world, they are descriptive. It is something that Fido the dog can see and detect, that we can video-tape and check with someone else for confirmation.
  • Judgment or evaluation-based information is non-sensory based. It is made up of meta-terms that are interpretations and judgments about something. They are terms of the mind, and not of the world. They are entirely subjective, the categories and hallucinations in our own mind-body system that we project onto others.

What is the significance of this distinction? Does it make much difference? Oh yes.

With sensory-based terms you can say almost anything to anybody and get by with it. Conversely, with evaluation-based terms you can hardly say anything to anybody without eliciting a disagreement or stimulating an argument.

The first describes things in such a way that the other person can quickly and easily validate and determine the legitimacy of the information. The second communicates the receiver’s model of the world. It is a projection of the person’s matrix of frames, of the person’s hallucinations.

With the empirical data of sensory-based feedback we offer less and less of our own stuff, our own maps and model of the world and more of what we can agree upon. Evaluation-based feedback is entirely a projection of our own hallucinations. Such feedback is not about the empirical see-hear-feel facts of our discussion but about our opinions, prejudices, understandings, and beliefs. As such, evaluative feedback isn’t feedback about the subject, but feed forward of the evaluator. This does not make such evaluations bad. In fact, every expert coach, therapist, and consultant is paid well precisely for evaluations.

This also explains why we always meta-model evaluative feedback if we want to know what it means with precision. We have to. We have to translate the evaluations back into sensory-based information. Giving evaluative feedback is not actually even feedback, it is projection of the evaluator. It’s not even about the person or behavior being discussed. Yet if you think it is, then you are simply being hypnotized into the person’s model of the world. It is what the evaluator is feed forwarding from his or her own Matrix of Frames. To “meta-model” evaluative feedback we ask the speaker to more specifically describe things. To that end, we ask questions that index the what, when, how, who, with whom, where, etc.

Suppose someone says the following, thinking it is feedback.

“That was rude. You should not have been so aggressive with her.”

That’s not feedback. “Rude”and “aggressive” are not see-hear-feel terms. This is projection of the person’s beliefs, abstractions, and model of the world, rather than feedback. It is a projection of the speaker’s ideas that he or she has fed forward. The speaker is not feeding anything back but sharing his or her judgments and opinions. As such the receiver can’t do anything about it. The language first has to be operationalized by asking meta-model questions to index the details and to create a more specific mapping.

What was rude? Rude in what way? Rude according to what standards?

How was I aggressive? In what way?

The person could respond in many ways.

It was rude because you rolled your eyes when she told about Henry.

You were rude by not standing up when she walked in the room. That was very aggressive.

You were rude and aggressive by the harsh tone of your voice.

The rudeness was in shaking your finger at her.

You interrupted her twice during those three hours. That was aggressive.

We can test and verify sensory-based information with our senses and then engage in a dialogue about what such brute facts mean to each of us. Only in this way can we intelligently discuss our responses to each other.

Giving feedback to someone (feedbacking, if we want to turn it into a verb) is like holding up a mirror to that person so that the person can see, hear, and feel precisely what you see, hear and feel. There’s a pureness to feedbacking in this sense. It does not impose, it reflects. That’s why sensory-based language (see-hear-feel language) is so powerful.

In our Meta-Coaching and Neuro-Semantics Trainers training, I have been leading out using feedbacking as a key Neuro-Semantic skill. For several years, I have asked the trainers to make a short five minute presentation. Afterwards I would ask everybody to give feedback to the presenter on several key areas:

  • Engagement: Was it engaging? Did it engage you? How did it engage you? What did the presenter do that you found very engaging?
  • State induction: Did it induce any states in you? What did you feel? How did the presenter evoke that state or feeling?
  • Effectiveness: Was it effective? What was effective about the presentation? What worked really well in terms of language, gestures, use of space, etc.?
  • Frames: Did the person set forth any frames? What frames? How did the presenter do that?

In every training as I would seek this kind of positive feedback data to the presenter from the group, I would have to ask the indexing questions. “What specifically did you find engaging?” “Good. And how did he use his voice that you found engaging specifically?” Reflecting back or mirroring back in see-hear-feel terms usually takes many days. It’s not an easy skill. But with practice, people learn to do it. The final question I always ask focuses on suggestions for the presenter to take his or her presentation to the next level of development.

Recommendations: What suggestions can you offer? What would make this presentation even more charming, dynamic, powerful, engaging, etc.?

I mention this feedbacking process at the Meta-Coaching trainings, but it was in London (April, 2003) where Michelle Duval and I conducted our first Neuro-Semantics Coaching Certification in England that members of our Assist Team approached us and asked if we would provide that kind of feedback for them. So we did. We offered them feedback about their skills in working with participants and we also offered a Stretch Challenge to take their skills and competencies to the next level.

More recently (July, 2003) I used this for the entire Neuro-Semantics Trainers.

Who would like feedback, not on your presentation, but on yourself?

Who would like to receive 1 or 2 sensory-based reflections that would let you see yourself more clearly that could offer you a stretch goal for this next year and allow you to take your skills to the next level?

I told the group that I had set a goal several years ago that I would improve my presentation skills, my writing skills, my modeling skills, and my business and entrepreneurial skills at least 5% every year. With that in mind, I wanted to go first. Who could offer me some sensory-based feedbacking that would support me in taking my own skills to the next level?

After I went then perhaps half of the group took their turns coming to the front to receive mirroring feedback. Later several told me that that was much more frightening than any public speech they had ever made. And others approach me privately who asked for feedback who just didn’t want to do it in front of the entire group.

Systemic Feedback

“Feedback” and “feedforward” are system terms. They describe the information and energy that flows through a system of variable parts that work together as a dynamic structure. We first feed some action forward into the world in terms of words, gestures, and behaviors and then we receive other words, gestures, and behaviors in return. This is feedback in the input-output system. Yet it is not easy.

The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback

Obviously the giving and receiving of feedback is an art. In addition to the skills of detection and recognition of sensory-based and evaluation-based information, we have to assume personal responsibility to own our responses as our own. The art also involves the ego-strength to face information as information or mere data, and the centeredness to operate from a solid sense of self as of unconditional value. If we are not in this state, we will not be able to effectively receive feedback and use it. Today when I do feedbacking with someone, I first ask them to step into a state of being centered and to bathe themselves in the knowledge that they are so much more than their behaviors.

To meta-model evaluative terms necessitates that we directly engage each other in a dialogue of discovery. Any kind of trying to mediate our feedback to someone else through a third-party is triangling which easily leads to collusion and co-dependency. This describes another facet of ego-strength. It is the ability to be direct with the person we want to offer feedback, to ask permission to do so, and to then do so in a straightforward way without beating around the bush. If we have something to say, we say so in a kind, considerate, and forthright manner. We do so in see-hear-feel terms and we recognize that not only could we be wrong. That’s why we present it tentatively and own it as our own, “To me it seems like …” Finally, we grant the other person the ultimate choice about what to do with the information that we feed back.

In sharing see-hear-feel information that the other can validate or not, we share our opinion of the meanings we attribute as our own. So it is not the case that we don’t offer our evaluations, we do. Yet as we do, we do so fully recognizing the evaluations as our evaluations, and not as the facts. At the same time we leave the other free to make the final choice about how he or she will interpret it. To do otherwise is to impose our values upon the other person.

Recognizing this distinction between sensory-based and evaluative-based terms is a sign of a professional communicator. To confuse the two confuses levels. This ability to distinguish the levels of information empowers us to know at what level of encoding we’re working from. That’s why I put in Communication Magic (2001) that

“… with sensory-based information we can say almost anything to anyone without inviting a semantic reaction. Similarly, with evaluative-based information we can hardly say anything to anyone without triggering a semantic reaction.”

It is that powerful. Why is this? Because the meanings (semantics) we make and attribute to things is an individual and personal process and does not exist in the sensory-based description. To “judge” in this sense is to project our model of the world onto others. And that’s failing to meet the other at ground zero or at the other’s map. It imposes our mapping. This breaks rapport and thereby prevents effective communication.

Yet this is so subtle that most of us never notice. We really don’t know that “rudeness” and “niceness” are not qualities that exist “out there” in the world. They are our evaluations. So with lots of other words—effectiveness and failure, caring and selfishness, love and hate, anger and stress, calmness and laziness. What we can see, hear and feel “out there” are breathing slow and deep, or quick and shallow. What that means depends on what the other person experiences and meanings attributed. That’s why we have to ask about meanings. And ask about whose meanings.

In the Meta-Model we ask lots of questions to explore, to find out, and to discover what the other means by such sensory-based signals. To take another’s evaluative terms and run with them assumes their reality and to so enter the hypnotic state they evoke.

From Criticism, Insult, and Failure to Feedback

While we need feedback for developing a self-correcting and continuous improvement orientation, most of us have framed “feedback” using other names. We have labeled it as “criticism,” “insult,” “put-down,” “rejection” and “failure.” Doing this, of course, transforms the experience into something negative and aversive, something to be avoided. How about you? How have you framed feedback? Check your frames:

  • What are the thoughts-and-feeling states that you experience when you think about the state of receiving feedback?
  • What are the states that you experience when you give feedback?
  • How skilled are you at giving effective, sensory-based feedback to another?

C How skilled are you in discerning the difference between sensory based and evaluative based feedback?

Since giving and receiving feedback are key Neuro-Semantic skills, I have reproduced the following patterns. These are essential to any kind of NLP and Neuro-Semantic Coaching.


Giving and Receiving Quality Feedback for Interpersonal Coaching

We all need feedback. But we don’t need evaluative-based feedback. We need good, accurate, sensory-based feedback that assists us in tuning up our skills and incorporating new patterns.

In Giving High Quality Feedback to Others:

1) Establish respectful rapport.

Make all of your NLP and Neuro-Semantics skills count by making sure you have rapport first. Make sure you and the other person have accessed a resourceful state to do this. Pace, pace, pace… and only when there’s pacing and rapport, then offer sensory based feedback.

“You have a nice way of quickly engaging and setting the frame of the exercise… it seemed however that you moved a little too fast …”

2) Identify the outcome of the feedback.

If you’re doing an exercise, what is the outcome, design, or objective of the exercise? Tie your feedback to the outcome.

“In light of your goal for this exercise of integrating these two parts, I noticed the following … (sensory based feedback) …”

“In light of your desire to become more people oriented as a manager, I noticed that you didn’t use anybody’s first name in the meeting today.”

3) Separate feedback from the person and even from the style of the feedback.

Many people (perhaps most) really do not know how to given sensory-based feedback. They fail to distinguish sensory-based from evaluative based and assume their projections and judgments are sensory-based when they are not.

Refuse to let their incompetence or sloppiness in giving feedback deprive your of the feedback.

Invite them to specify the feedback in sensory-based terms.

“I would like to understand more about what you’re saying to me, could you give me more specifics about how you thought my performance was ‘sloppy?’ Sloppy in what way or how?”

4) Reframe feedback so that it is acceptable and valued.

How is feedback valuable to you? What other values can you give to it?

What positive values and meanings do others give feedback?

5) Obtain behavioral feedback that’s sensory specific.

This avoids personalizing and/or interpreting any feedback as having anything to do with our Identity, translate all feedback into specific behaviors. Make sure you have this in see-hear-feel terms. Making the feedback sensory based, prevents evaluations and judgments.

“As you fired off the anchor on her arm, I noticed that you put your fingers down about 1/4 of an inch from where it seemed you set the anchor a moment ago.”

“It seemed to me that your use of the term ‘you guys’ was too informal for the board meeting of directors today.”

6) Offer feedback tentatively while seeking the person’s validation or dis-validation.

Hear the feedback as tentative even if the person didn’t encode it as such. Use, “to me…” “In my opinion…” “From my perspective …”

“In view of eliciting the learning state (objective), you only paused two seconds for her to recall a memory, and just when her eyes defocused, you jumped in and asked her to make the picture brighter (sensory based), I got the impression she needed more time to process… Did you need more time?”

7) Make the feedback timely.

Share it when it is fresh, when it is happening rather than waiting days, weeks, or months.

In Receiving High Quality Feedback

1) Identify your current frame (meta-state/s) about feedback (correction, error detection, etc.).

When you think about someone informing you (telling you) that you made a mistake, error, messed up, did something wrong, etc., what thoughts and feelings come to mind?

What state does that put you in?

What do you believe about that?

2) Deframe the old frames to slay or tame any old dragons that might make you closed or defensive.

Do these states enhance your learning abilities?

Do these states, frames, meaning serve your creativity, growth, understandings, etc.?

How do they represent ill-formed maps?

3) Specific and meta-state the qualities and resources that you would like to meta-state feedback with.

Menu list: Patience, acceptance, appreciation, positive intention, commitment to yourself, your learning, your budding genius, acceptance of your fallibility as a human being, willingness to know how others perceive us, etc.

Use the basic meta-stating pattern to set the frames that will best texture your learning state regarding sensory-based feedback.

4) Commit yourself to sensory-based feedback.

Do you know how to distinguish sensory-based and evaluative based feedback/ information?

Will you make that distinction for yourself and help the sender of the feedback to offer it in see-hear-feel terms?

Will you stubbornly refuse to immediately buy into judgment based feedback so that it doesn’t do semantic damage to you?

5) Future Pace.

Imagine moving forward with this way of thinking and feeling about feed back into the months and years to come.

Do you like this?

Does it enhance your interactions and relationships?


We give and receive feedback to hone skills, refine performance, and move to a higher level of expertise. We do this with people and so in the context of relationships. That’s why it’s an art and not a de-personal technology. We have to consider the person we’re offering the feedback, getting permission from him or her, establishing criteria, pacing, being tentative, checking out the feedback, encoding it as sensory-based, ready to apologize for any mind-reading or assumptions, etc. To do it well is a master skill.


Hall, L. Michael. (2000 second edition). Meta-States: Mastering your higher states of mind. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., researcher and modeler, international trainer and entrepreneur lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.