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Why Criticism Is So Tough To Swallow (And How To Make It Go Down Easier)

Source | FastCompany : By CAROLINE WEBB

A few years ago, I was working hard on a scrappy document that would eventually blossom into my first-ever book. It was still very early in the project, and I was hungry for guidance. So I was delighted that a colleague, who I’ll call Matt, had agreed to review my efforts and offer some constructive feedback. When he did, it went something like this:

Matt: “You’re doing great! Here’s what I think you should change . . . [followed by a thoughtful explanation of six suggestions for improvement] Other than that, it’s great!”

Me: “Um, okay, thanks.”

Matt was diligently following advice he’d once been given about the right way to give feedback. In his mind, he was making a tasty “praise sandwich”—saying one positive thing on either side of his criticism in order to make his comments feel less demotivating. He was trying to be considerate, yet I’d walked away feeling strangely discouraged. It was the opposite of what he’d intended.

That was hardly surprising, though, given a few things we know about the way our brains work.


At any given time, brains are subconsciously scanning the world around us for dangers to defend against—ready to launch a fight, flight, or freeze response that will protect us from predators or poisons. But the brain doesn’t just guard us against physical threats. Research has found that it also goes on the defensive in response to things that threaten to undermine our social standing and safety, including interactions that make us feel even mildly rejected or incompetent. Since even being glanced at askance by a stranger can be enough to trigger our defenses, you can bet that receiving critical feedback is pretty likely to spark a fight, flight, or freeze response.

That matters because when our brains are in defensive mode, studies have shown that there’s reduced activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s where our most sophisticated mental machinery generally lives: the neural systems responsible for self-control, reasoning, and forethought.

So it’s no wonder we don’t always respond graciously to feedback; it’s quite likely that our most thoughtful, attentive, flexible selves are somewhat offline. In fact, it’s possible that we’re not even properly listening. By the time Matt got to the third of his six suggestions, I was daydreaming about giving up the whole idea of writing a book (and considering what would happen if I perhaps punched him, gently).

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