Feedback zingers. You know the ones. Those sarcastic one liners that feel like a hunting knife straight to the heart. Or sometimes it feels like a wet blanket quenching the joyful fire in your soul as it sploshes heavily, coldly, over your shoulders.
Here’s a few of my own personal lifetime favorite feedback zingers:
In my mother’s 2003 Christmas letter sent to hundreds of friends and family: “Irene is throwing away her PhD to become a middle school teacher.”
From my beloved husband: “Sometimes, you’re just like your mother.”
On Rate my Professor in my early days of teaching at California State University, Chico: ”She treats you like your in 4th grade.”
I just got back from a conference for school leaders where I presented a half day workshop on the science of giving and receiving feedback. I taught folks how to take a piece of feedback and deliver it with compassion and constructive clarity, so that it wouldn’t land like a zinger. But most people haven’t had that kind of training. (Psst… I’ll be offering the workshop again in January! See below.) Feedback can sting. It can cut. It can crush. It can simmer in your mind for days, weeks, months.
Why can feedback hurt so much? And what can we do about it?
The Science of Feedback Zingers
Whether feedback shows up at work or at home, it’s ever so easy to get triggered.
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, the authors of the fabulous book, Thanks for the Feedback, suggest that there are three reasons feedback triggers us:
An Identity Trigger is a problem with us. Something in the feedback causes our sense of who we are and/or our place in the world to come undone. The Christmas letter zinger was an Identity Trigger. Yes indeed, I made the choice to walk away from a prestigious, all-expenses-paid postdoctoral fellowship in Cambridge, England to teach middle school science and math. My mom put into bold, public-facing words all the identity and belonging questions in my heart: Who am I if not a scientist? How can I achieve anything in life as a middle school science and math teacher? Will my family still love me if I’m not walking the high-flyer path they wanted for me? What tribe do I belong to now?
A Relationship Trigger is a problem with the person giving us the feedback. Something is colored by the relationship we have with the giver. The “You’re just like your mother,” zinger was a Relationship Trigger. If you’ve ever been in a long term relationship or had a sibling, then you probably know exactly what I’m talking about here. Your nearest and dearest know exactly what to say to get under your skin. For me, Jason knows that as dearly as I love both him and my mom, those specific fighting words will wind me up more than anything else he could possibly say. (Note: Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen suggest that the surest indicator of a relationship zinger is the desire to throw an unrelated zinger back at the person: “Well you’re one to talk! Look at the way you…”)
A Truth Trigger is a problem with the substance of the feedback. Something seems wrong, unfair, unhelpful, or untrue. That comment on Rate My Professor still needles me to this day as a Truth Trigger. It’s so wrong on so many levels. I’m not treating students like 4th graders! You might need to go back to 4th grade yourself to figure out the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’! What I’m doing is helping students who have always hated science fall in love with science again. I’m exposing misconceptions about science that are rooted in early beliefs that get in the way of deeper conceptual understanding if not addressed. I’m offering labs with simple everyday materials, but college level concepts, so students see the science all around them in their daily lives. I’m teaching future teachers, not future med students – take that other Intro Bio class if you want to memorize the Krebs cycle.
When we get triggered by feedback, an interesting thing happens in our brain. The same brain areas that respond to physical, life-and-death threats (like a lion leaping out of the bushes to eat you) light up in response to the purely mental, psychological, threat posed by feedback. Our amygdala, a brain area that responds to fear and stress, is activated. Interestingly, there’s also activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that responds to physical pain such as holding your hand in ice water until you can’t stand it. Rejection and criticism make brain cells in the anterior cingulate respond in exactly the same way as physical pain.
To your brain, feedback quite literally cuts like a knife.
The solution boils down to two things: keeping things in perspective, and pushing rewind/pause.
Keep the Feedback in Perspective
In my online course, I call this strategy “letting feedback land in a bowl.” The idea is to allow the feedback to land somewhere outside of yourself rather than on top of you or inside of you. Any imaginary container will do – a box, a jar, even a blank sheet of paper. Too often feedback feels like a gut punch or a wet blanket dropped on our shoulders. That’s a bodily sign that we’ve been triggered. Instead, imagine the feedback landing in a container on a table in front of you. Or perhaps imagine taking it off your shoulders and putting it into a box. Now, with a little emotional distance, approach the feedback with curiosity, like a fascinating object you found in an antique store or on a walk with your dog.
When you let feedback land in a bowl, you can see the feedback for what it really is – everything the feedback is NOT about, and what it is ACTUALLY about. That alone usually helps remove the Relationship Triggers and Identity Triggers from the situation.
With an Identity Trigger, if I had let my mom’s Christmas letter comment land in a bowl, I’d know that the feedback is NOT about her love for me. Nor about my identity as a scientist. This was ACTUALLY about her fear for my financial security. This was actually about me following my heart and passion for once, not my head.
With a Relationship Trigger, if I had let Jason’s comment land in a bowl, I’d know that his feedback is NOT about whether he still loves me or how he sees me. This was ACTUALLY about my tendency to take on too much, get overwhelmed, and lose sight of what’s truly most important… just like my mom does. Other people can see our blind spots better than we can, and sometimes I really do need Jason to pull my head out of my to do list so I can see the big picture.
With a Truth Trigger, you can go a step further. If I let that Rate My Professor comment land in a bowl, I can look at what is “wrong” with this feedback and what actually might be right. Sure, this student completely misunderstood the purpose of the class, but s/he was right that I could add greater intellectual rigor to some of the more “fun” labs. Students had modeled the inside of a cell far too many times (yes, perhaps even since 4th grade). Therefore, let’s bring in high end collegiatemicroscopes, 3D simulations, videos, and discussions to really make cell biology come alive.
The other solution to feedback zingers is to use the pause/rewind button. We often forget that we own a remote control to use in the middle of our conversations to shift the pace and direction. Just like with a movie watched in the safety of our living room with a remote control in hand, we can always pause or rewind a conversation.
If you’re on the receiving end of a feedback zinger, consider pushing the pause button mid-conversation. Give yourself a moment, away from the feedback giver, to calm down and put things into perspective. Rather than responding to Jason in the moment with a zinger of my own, I can say, “Ouch. That hurt. I need a moment to collect myself. Let’s talk about this after breakfast.” Then I’ll take a brain break. Clear my head. Put the feedback in a bowl. And come back to the conversation when I’m ready to reengage.
If perhaps you were the one who threw the feedback zinger in the first place, consider rewinding the conversation with something like, “Wow. We got off on the wrong foot here. I can see that what I just said stung and that wasn’t my intention. Sorry if I hurt your feelings. Can we rewind and start over again?”
Feedback is hard to receive and hard to give, but without it, we can’t grow.
By learning how to identify why the feedback is triggering us (identity, relationship, or truth), and by how to create the emotional distance you need to keep the feedback in perspective (put it in a bowl), you can keep the helpful parts while leaving the unhelpful, hurtful parts behind. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and it always seems like someone in the family has a feedback zinger saved up from the year to throw across the delicious holiday spread. Or perhaps your boss has the perfect zinger to send you out the office door. May these tips and tricks offer a way to lessen the sting and approach feedback with a little more openness, curiosity, and calm.
You got this! (And happy Thanksgiving!)
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback is, in my humble opinion, a must have on any leader’s bookshelf.
For a different take, try Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. It’s a classic that teaches me something every time I pick it up.
I’m offering a half-day workshop all about the neuroscience and psychology of giving and receiving feedback this January 2023! You’ll have your choice of in person or on Zoom. Bring a friend from your organization and get 20% off! Sign up today!
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