Time to Rethink “There Is No Failure, Only Feedback”?

Anyone who’s trained in NLP, or even read a book about it, will be familiar with the NLP presupposition that ‘There is no failure, only feedback‘.

A quick recap on what this means: if you try something, and it doesn’t work, it’s more useful to take that result as ‘feedback’ (useful information, telling you to do things differently in some way next time) rather than as ‘failure’, which would make it more likely that you’ll feel like giving up on the whole enterprise.

Additionally, it’s a short step from labelling some action as a ‘failure’ to thinking ‘I failed’, and maybe even labelling yourself at the Identity level by thinking “I’m a failure”. Regarding a disappointing outcome as feedback is a big advance on that kind of thinking.

Like the other NLP presuppositions, it’s a very useful way of looking at the world – in fact, the whole idea of these presuppositions is that you have to act as if they are true if you want to use NLP with any hope of success.

Somehow, though, this useful way of looking at things hasn’t caught on much outside of the NLP and personal development worlds. Most people, if they try something and it doesn’t work, are still thinking ‘failure’ and making harder work for themselves.

What if we could come up with a more user-friendly, less geeky way of phrasing this helpful maxim?

The term ‘feedback’ as used here is a technical one that comes from cybernetics, the study of control and communication in animals, machines and systems, and how systems adjust themselves according to the feedback they get from the results of their actions. Probably it found its way into NLP via the influence of Gregory Bateson, who thought deeply about cybernetics and was a big influence on Bandler and Grinder when they were developing NLP (incidentally, while researching this piece I came across this fascinating transcript of a speech by Bateson about cybernetics and how it relates to problem formation in therapy, society, and elsewhere – you’ll need to register with ResearchGate to access it, but it’s free and worth it).

The word ‘cybernetics’ comes from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs) meaning ‘steersman’ – a reference to how a helmsman adjusts the course of the ship according to the information he gets, moment to moment, about where the ship is pointing as it’s influenced by wind and waves. In other words, to the feedback he gets from the immediate environment about the results of his steering.

But what does ‘feedback’ mean to most people? If you work in a corporate environment, ‘feedback’ might have negative emotional connotations – it’s that unpleasant thing that your boss calls you into their office from time to time to give you, essentially telling you that they think you’re doing something wrong.

Or on a happier note, for classic rock buffs like me, it’s that glorious squalling noise that Jimi Hendrix gets out of his guitar as he brings it closer to his speaker stack.

Either way, it’s not immediately saying ‘here’s a better way to look at and learn from the results you get’.

I hadn’t thought about this much until the other day, when I listened to an episode of Inspiring Impacts (a podcast about my other area of work, Appreciative Inquiry) where they interviewed Luc Verheijen, a practitioner from Belgium. The interview sparked a lot of interesting ideas (I’ve written them up here), but the relevant one here is when he dropped the phrase “there is no failure, only learning.”

It means the same as the ‘only feedback’ version, but it has the big advantage that it’s instantly clear what it means, and you don’t have to be familiar with cybernetics to understand it.

If I was still teaching NLP Practitioner courses (and given what a blast I’m having focusing on Appreciative Inquiry, it would take a lot to tempt me back), I would be using the ‘only learning’ version in the ‘Presuppositions of NLP’ segment.

Why wouldn’t you? Especially if we remember that other presupposition of NLP that if you’re trying to communicate with or influence another person, you should start from where they are, rather than expecting them to jump over to how you see things straight away.

Let’s use language that regular people understand! It will help these wonderful ideas and tools of NLP reach more people so they can do more good.

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© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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