How to Process Your Brain’s Default Reactions to Feedback

Feedback is something we all need but most of the time…we don’t really want it. Feedback could potentially reveal an area we need to improve upon, and our brains can quickly send us into a spiral of self-deprecation and a healthy avoidance of any future feedback.

It’s time to start thinking positively about feedback. We wanted to share this blog from our archives, written by our founder, Diane Paddison. Diane lists three mental triggers you may encounter when receiving feedback and how you can use those triggers to retrain how your brain reacts to feedback.

Don’t have time to read this blog? Listen to it below!

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Proverbs 27:17, NIV

Or rather we could sharpen each other—if we were just willing to listen.

Is it hard for you to hear feedback? Most of us would like to say that it’s not. After all, each of us wants to be the type of person who humbly and honorably receives and responds to feedback. But the truth is most of us aren’t. I welcome feedback, we think, when it’s valid. Or when it comes from someone I respect. Or when it’s delivered appropriately.

We avoid seeking feedback because it makes us uncomfortable, and we disregard most of what we do hear (which, incidentally, is often poorly delivered). As a society, we are bad at giving feedback, and we’re even worse at receiving it. But without feedback it’s hard to know where you stand at work or in a relationship. You’re essentially flying blind.

There must be a better way.

Sheila Heen, coauthor of Thanks For the Feedback, would like to change that. Speaking at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit, Heen identified the incredible value of feedback and encouraged Christian leaders to reevaluate their approach to giving and receiving it.

Most approaches to improving workplace feedback focus on quality and messaging. The emphasis is on providing managers better resources for evaluating performance and better skills for communicating the results of the evaluation. Both are good and necessary, but there’s room for improvement on the other side of the equation too, and that’s a side we can each do something about.

Heen and her fellow researcher Douglas Stone found that our brains reflexively filter out most of the feedback we hear. It’s true that not all feedback is equally valuable, but to get to that iron-sharpens-iron place, we must be able to hear and evaluate feedback fairly. We can improve those skills by understanding and taking into account the needs and emotions that get in the way.

While Heen’s research focuses primarily on the workplace, the results apply to other contexts as well. Some of the hardest feedback for me to hear comes from my kids or Christian friends. Yet if we want to grow in our faith, work, and relationships, we must learn to hear and respond to feedback, even when it’s poorly delivered, comes from unwelcome sources, or seems unfair.

To do that, you must be able to identify and process your brain’s default reactions to hearing information about yourself.

Know the Triggers

At a basic level, humans need to both grow and be appreciated just as they are. When dealing with feedback, those two needs often come into direct conflict. As we receive feedback we automatically go into protective mode, searching for triggers that might discredit the potentially uncomfortable things we’re hearing. Interestingly, this holds true whether feedback is positive or negative. Sometimes positive feedback can be hard to hear as well. Heen and Stone identify several triggers we need to be aware of:

When feedback trips a truth, relational, or identity trigger, we tend to discount it, fight it, or simply withdraw from it. A better response is to understand where the other person is coming from and to try on, or experiment with, their assessment in a dispassionate way.

That’s easier said than done when your very first corporate boss tells you that your approach to teamwork is demoralizing and disrespectful to your coworkers (yes, this happened to me), or when your teenage kids, for whom you’ve made endless sacrifices, shout that you are the “worst mom ever.”

Knowing what triggers are affecting your response can help you to get past instinctual denial or defensiveness. From there, you can evaluate feedback in a more constructive way.

Take the time to listen.

Several years ago, my daughter, Annie, confronted me over my failure to listen to her when she was talking about something important to her. She said it felt as if I didn’t care. My gut reaction was to fight. “Of course I care, but we’ve been talking for a long time and you’ve been repeating yourself. I just took one second to glance at an email . . .”

I immediately realized that response would get us nowhere. Regardless of how I actually felt about Annie, my listening habits made her feel uncared for. I needed to make some changes. In order to get to that truth, I had to push past my instinctual response. For me it was partly a pride issue.

Christians are called to seek and meditate on truth (Philippians 4:8), even truth that may be hard to hear. We have the freedom to do that because we don’t have to be fearful of or constrained by the feedback the world offers. God offers us an identity in Him that cannot be threatened by employee evaluations or criticism from family members.

Open yourself up.

“For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.”

Ephesians 5:8–9

The next time you encounter feedback that makes you uncomfortable, offer a quick prayer and realign your heart and mind. Then step out as a child of light, secure in your foundation, and open yourself to truth and growth.

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