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First presented at The Developing Group 6 July 2013

Deconstructing Feedback

James Lawley and Penny Tompkins

1. What is feedback?
2. Six types of information to feed back
3. More distinctions 
4. Three feedback techniques mapped on to the six types 
5. Receiving feedback
Our purpose in writing this paper is to raise awareness of both the complexity of the feedback-giving process and the range of information that can be included in feedback. As a result we expect feedback givers to have more awareness of what is happening for them (interior) and more choice about the way the give feedback (exterior). Our hope is that this will increase the quality of feedback given and to raise the appropriateness and usefulness of the feedback process.

1. What is feedback?

Systemically speaking we cannot not respond to what others are doing, and in this respect we are always providing feedback – mostly out of awareness. However, there is also an overt and conscious kinds of feedback, which is the subject of this paper.

Although giving feedback is often portrayed as a linear process, this is an incomplete simplification. From B’s perspective, ‘giving feedback’ to A involves:

In the broadest of terms, feedback is making what is internal external, what is private public.

2. Six types of information to feed back

What goes on internally in the feedback giver can be categorised into six types of information:

(a) There will always be a context which frames our feedback and whether we are aware of it or not we will have one or more intentions for giving (or even considering giving) feedback .

What is observed (b), our personal response (c), the meaning we make (d), and our desired outcome or developmental suggestion (e) will involve either:

Internal criteria / values / preferences Personal: like/dislikes, standards, values, ethics.
Social customs and conventions.
External criteria / values / preferences The Law, assessment criteria, rules of a game, ethical standards.
Even with the most ‘objective’ of external criteria there will still be a ‘subjective’ element involved in the comparison or evaluation.

And, whether we are aware of it or not, we have probably made an assessment of the likely effects  (f) of delivering our feedback.

Interestingly, our observation is that the first and last feedback types on our list – (a) frames and purpose, and (f) likely effects – are the ones feedback givers pay the least attention to, consciously that is.

Six types defined

Although in the diagram the six feedback types are shown in a linear sequence, this is not what happens in practice. Rather, a more iterative process is involved that informs itself. In general though, there is a past-present-future sequence in terms of where attention needs to go to access the information.

(a) FRAMES and purpose for the feedback
 Including importance (for giver or receiver)


(b) OBSERVED behaviour
Sensory-based description of what was noticed, what was seen and heard:
- What happened
- (less frequently, what did not happen)


(c) Personal RESPONSE
Sensory-based, conceptual or metaphorical description of internal experience triggered by (b).

(d) MEANING given to (b) and/or (c).
Interpretation, evaluation, opinion in relation to INTERNAL or EXTERNAL criteria given in conceptual, metaphorical or numerical terms and identifying (b) or (c) as either:
- Problematic (often misleading called 'negative' feedback)
- Resourceful (so called ‘positive’ feedback)

Explanation, reason, justification


(e) DESIRE for something to Change
Sensory-based description in relation to an INTERNAL criteria.
Description of:
- What I would like (more of) to happen (desired Outcome)
- What I would like less of/not to happen (proposed Remedy)
(e) DEVELOPMENTAL suggestion
sensory-based description in relation to external criteria


(f) Likely EFFECTS
Consideration of effects of feedback on others
Sensory-based description of expected consequence if feedback:
- enacted
- somewhat enacted
- not enacted

Note: Resource, Explanation, Problem, Remedy, Outcome, Change refer to our REPROCess Model.

We appreciate these categories are useful rather than all-inclusive. The feedback giver and the feedback receiver will make these distinctions through their personalised constructs and perceptions. “To describe is also to evaluate; there is no nonevaluative description” says Stephanie Backman.* To select a behaviour, a response, an explanation or a desire is to have decided what is important and what isn’t. Every piece of feedback speaks volumes of what occupies the forefront of the giver’s attention.

* Stephanie Backman (p. 403) Epilogue: The Aesthetic Lens in On Intimate Ground: A Gestalt Approach to Working with Couples, Gordon Wheeler & Stephanie Backman (Editors). Gestalt Press, 1997.

Sample statements for each feedback type

a. FRAMES or purpose for the feedback
  • I’d like to give you some feedback about ...
  • It’s important to me that we arrange a time for me to express my views/opinions/thoughts.
  • This assessment will include feedback on when you did and when you did not meet the standard.
  • You’ve met the competency standard, so what I’m going to say now is to give you a developmental stretch.
  • What do you want feedback on?
  • I have some comments to make on ... would you like them?
  • When/Where/How would you like to receive my feedback?

b. OBSERVED behaviour
  • What I saw/heard was ...
  • I noticed you ...
  • When you said/did ...
  • I remember/recall you ...
  • The recording showed you ...

c. Personal RESPONSE
  • In response I felt/imagined/heard myself say ...
  • Inside it was like [metaphor].
  • I was [emotion] ...
  • I was surprised by ...
  • I am now experiencing ...

d. MEANING given to (b) and/or (c).

Internal Criteria:
  • I interpreted your behaviour as meaning ...
  • ... meant I ...
  • My opinion is ...
  • In my view that was [evaluation word]
  • I did/didn’t like ...
  • Because ...
  • The reason I say that is ...
  • .... triggered ... in me.
  • .... resulted in ...
  • I would grade that a ...
  • I need [value concept. e.g. respect].
  • It’s important that I am [value concept].
  • I appreciate that you [observed behaviour].
  • What you did (didn’t do) well was [observed behaviour].
External Criteria:
  • When you ... you are breaking the law.
  • You have demonstrated ... and that meets the criteria of ...
  • You’ve passed your driving test.
  • ... is (not) company policy.
  • The benchmark says ...

e. DESIRE for something to Change  
  • I’d like to see you do ...
  • Please would you ...
  • I’d prefer you to say/do ...
  • Would you be willing to ... ?

   DEVELOPMENTAL suggestion
  • To demonstrate criteria ... you need to [behaviour].
  • I need to see/hear you [behaviour] before you meet the standard.
  • To qualify you must show you can [criteria] by [behaviour].
  • I recommend that to ... you [behaviour].

f. Likely EFFECTS  
  • Then I will be happy.
  • We will have a basis on which to work together.
  • If you do not stop [behaviour] I shall leave the room.
  • This is so important to me that should you continue with [behaviour] I will end our relationship.
  • If there is no improvement the next stage will be a written warning.

3. More distinctions

Making use of the entire range covered by the six types of feedback will require the giver to be able to make a number of distinctions, i.e. to be able to differentiate between:
Interior (Private, Unseen) / Exterior (Public, Observable)

Description / Explanation / Interpretation / Evaluation (Opinion)

Resource / Meaning (Explanation) / Problem / Remedy / Outcome / Change

Sensory / Conceptual / Symbolic (metaphoric) description

Past / Present / Future  or Before / During / After (Effects)

What (content) / How (process)  / Why (two types: explaining the past or intending the future)
Levels involved in feedback
   ^    Frames about the feedback (a)
   ^    Meaning-making (d) and Desire/Development (e)
   ^    Response to observation (c)
   ^    Observation (b)

Ways of giving feedback

  • Verbal (sensory / conceptual / metaphorical)
  • Nonverbal (body / voice)
  • Demonstration

What makes feedback ‘clean’?

  • Asking if / when feedback wanted
  • Asking how would like feedback to be delivered
  • Awareness/honesty with self (especially intention)
  • Making the frames and your intention overt
  • Maintaining a clarity of the Frame/Purpose throughout.
  • Separating the six types of feedback
  • Simple, concise, straightforward delivery.
  • Appropriate to the context.
  • Tailored to the receiver (where possible).

4. Three feedback techniques mapped on to the six types

Common feedback techniques make use of some, but not all, of the six types of feedback given above. Below we have taken three techniques and noted which of the six types of feedback they incorporate and in what order. We notice that one of the six types (f) is not included in any of these techniques.

TABLE 1: Rosenberg's Non-violent Communication Process

(Marshall B. Rosenberg)

Mapped on to
six types of feedback

1. When I ... [what I observe (see, hear, remember) that does or does not contribute to my well being]
(b) Observation based on Personal Criteria  of “does or does not contribute to my well being”

2. I feel ... [emotion or sensation in relation to what I observe].

(c) Response
3. Because I need/value ... [what I need or value (rather than a preference or an action)].

(d) Meaning - Explanation of Personal Criteria of “need/value”
4. Would you be willing to ... [the concrete action I would like taken]?

(e) Desire - based on Personal Criteria

See: Marshall B. Rosenberg, 4-Part Non-violent Communication Process,

TABLE 2: Doyle & Walker's Clean Feedback Model

(Doyle & Walker)

Mapped on to
six types of feedback

1a. Something that you said or did that worked well for me was ...

(b) Observation based on Personal Criteria of “worked well”
1b. I interpret this as meaning ...

(d) Meaning - Interpretation
2a. Something that you said or did that didn’t work so well for me was ...

(b) Observation based on Personal Criteria of “didn’t work so well”
2b. I interpret this as meaning...

(d) Meaning - Interpretation
3a. Something I prefer you to say or do is ...
(e) Desire - based on Personal Criteria
3b. I interpret this as meaning ...

(d) Meaning - Interpretation

See: Nancy Doyle and Caitlin Walker (2008) Cleaning up the ‘F’ word in coaching, Rapport, November

TABLE 3: Toastmaster's Three R's of Evaluation

Mapped on to
six types of feedback

Review. Before the presentation consider the speaker’s personal goals as well as the official Toastmasters evaluation guide.

Answer the question, “Did the speaker accomplish what she set out to?”
(a) Frames - Goals of person receiving feedback and organisation’s standard guidelines.

(d)Meaning - Evaluation of Outcome

Reward. Richly praise the aspects that were particularly good in the speech. Use words like exemplary, outstanding, effective, admirable, pleasing or beneficial.

Explain why the aspect was worthy of note by quoting the exact words or re-enacting a gesture.

(d) Meaning - Evaluation of Resource

(d) Meaning - Explanation
(b) Observation
Respond with:
- What you heard and saw (give examples)

- What you felt (your emotions, images could you see in your mind, Were you moved to action?)

- Did it seem like your reaction was what the speaker intended?

(b) Observation based on Externalnal Criteria

(c) Response

(d) Meaning - Evaluation
Inform speaker of your opinion of points for improvement and what need to be worked on, offer suggestions and provide examples as to how these changes can be made.

(d) Meaning - Interpretation

(e) Desire - based on Personal Criteria

See: Use the three R’s of evaluating: Review, Reward and Respond

Note: In Toastmaster’s the feedback (or ‘evaluation’ as they call it) is given to the group, not the speaker. The speaker is an observer and is referred to in the third-person.

Further reading

Turnbull, C. (2002) Feedback Techniques, Ashridge Learning Resource Centre Learning Guides

5. Receiving feedback


  • Say if, when, where, what, how and from whom you would like feedback
  • Accept the feedback as a perfect description of the person’s internal process
  • Accept they have every right to their views and opinions (even if they are ‘wrong’)
  • Do not explain or justify your behaviour (unless overtly requested)
  • Say: “Thank you for noticing.”
  • Know it’s their stuff and “look for the boulder of truth” in yourself.
  • Determine the intention of the person giving the feedback and take this into account before you ‘taking it on board’.
  • Take into account the expertise of the feedback giver.
  • If needs be – check your intention first – ask contextually-clean clarifying questions (see below).

Clean Clarifying Questions for Receivers of Feedback

If needed, the receiver of feedback can ask the following contextually-clean questions to fill in gaps in the six types of information provided (or not) by the giver of the feedback. These are a sample of the kind of questions that might need to be constructed by the receiver in the moment.

  • What is your purpose in giving me this feedback?
  • What would you like to have happen as a result of giving me feedback?
  • And what do you anticipate the effect of giving me your feedback will be?
  • Thanks for offering to give me feedback, I would rather not receive it [at the moment].
  • Can we arrange another time/place for the feedback?
  • Where is this feedback on your scale of importance?
Observed behaviour:
  • What did I do that means [inferred meaning] ?
  • What did you see and hear that you are calling [inferred meaning] ?
Personal response:
  • When you observe/d me [observed behaviour], what is/was happening [inside] for you?
  • What kind of [personal response] ?
  • Is there anything else about [personal response]?
  • When you observe/d me [observed behaviour], what is that like?
  • When you observe/d me [observed behaviour], that’s like what?
Inferred Meaning:
  • By what criteria are you determining that [observed behaviour] means [inferred meaning]?
  • How do you know [observed behaviour] means [inferred meaning]?
  • What do you interpret [observed behaviour] means?
  • Where does it come from that [observed behaviour] means [inferred meaning]?
Personal Desire / Other’s Development:
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • How would you know I was [desire/development] ?
  • How will you know when I’m doing what you want/suggest?
Anticipated Effects:
  • What happens if I do [desire/development]?
  • What happens if I don’t [desire/development]?
  • How do you know [observed behaviour] will lead to [anticipated effect]?

Thanks are due to members of the Developing Group and in particular Phil Swallow for helping us specify the questions in this section.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – first registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy in 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. James has also written (with Marian Way) the first book dedicated to Clean Space: Insights in Space. Between them Penny and James have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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