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How to Mitigate the Pain of Getting and Giving Feedback

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Key Takeaways

  • Feedback is difficult because social and physical pain share some of the same brain circuitry.
  • The social pain comes because feedback challenges the image we have of ourselves.
  • The commonly advised feedback sandwich - praise, criticize, praise - has been shown not to work.
  • When giving feedback, focus on a specific situation, a specific behavior, and the perceived impact on others, not on your feelings about the behavior.
  • When receiving feedback, view it as a growth opportunity. Actively seeking feedback about specific situations is a good way to become better at receiving feedback.

Companies that encourage open and honest feedback do better than companies that do not. Nonetheless, giving feedback is difficult because social and physical pain share some of the same neural circuitry.  Hence, feedback can feel physically painful, as Sarah Hagan discusses in her 2018 QCon San Francisco talk.  Hagan uses scientific research to demonstrate how to give feedback properly.

Giving good feedback is a very marketable skill for both individuals and managers. Managers have an added burden because they are usually required to give feedback. Nonetheless, most people think they are good at giving feedback, but it usually comes off, as Hagan illustrates, with a typical statement of a young child, "My friends are dumb and they need to know."

Insights from Neuroscience

Neuroscience research has shown that giving feedback is notoriously difficult because of the neurocognitive overlap between physical and social pain.  

 In layman's terms, the body's response to social pain and the body's response to physical pain share some neural pathways. It can feel like you are physically hurt when you receive feedback. Hagan showed functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) to illustrate the point:

Hence, people tend to stop interacting with people who give negative feedback because nobody likes that feeling of pain. The attempt to help leads to avoiding the person who wants to help you.

Request Feedback to Start to Change the Culture

According to Hagan, the first step in developing a culture of continuous feedback at work is to actively seek feedback from colleagues. There are two ways to do this. One way is to ask something very specific and event-related. For example, asking about a particular meeting behavior, or email. This works well because you have limited the scope of the feedback, and it is likely to lead to concrete future actions. The other alternative is to ask for general feedback such as, “How can I do a better job in supporting the team?” This works well with people with whom you do not have a pre-existing relationship, or with whom you have only had limited interaction.

When you ask for feedback, the person giving the feedback has to do all the hard work. Nonetheless, you have to ask the right questions. Hearing feedback is the really difficult part.

How to Handle Negative Feedback

Negative reactions to feedback come in three categories that challenge our self-image.

The first category is that we reject feedback as not being truthful about who you are. Instead of disregarding it, try to shift your mindset and ask to find out more about what is meant. Try to get a better explanation, or ask a trusted colleague before disregarding the feedback.

The second category involves pre-existing relationships: spouses, co-workers, managers, even people we just met. It is hard to separate who is giving feedback from the content of that feedback. In these situations try to shift the focus from who is giving the feedback to the feedback content.

The third category revolves around how we see ourselves. Try to avoid taking it personally - that is where the social pain arises. Think of the feedback as a growth opportunity.  How can you be a better person by taking action based on this feedback? Sometimes, if the feedback feels like it threatens your identity, acknowledge and thank the person for the feedback, and indicate you need some time to reflect about it.

Feedback Approaches Validated by Research

The first time you give feedback in a high-risk situation can be terrifying, so it is best that your first time is in a low-risk situation. You have to practice. There is some research on the difficult situations you can encounter that can help you.

Feedback is best-given face-to-face. There is research that demonstrates that people assume a tone even if none was expected, which might be a big problem for distributed teams. Google Hangout or Skype calls are better than email or Slack. Think about what you would think if your manager writes to you, "We need to talk." What kind of tone do you read into that statement? Usually, people read it in a negative way even if that was not the intention.

The next critical step is to ask the right question. Hagan drove home that point with a tweet:

You should also ask the potential recipient if they have the time at that moment to get feedback. Theoretically, they could say no, but most will not, and you will then have them on your side. They are also primed to get feedback.

Be direct and state your intention to be helpful. The sandwich protocol - be positive, give negative feedback, and finish with the positive - has been shown to be ineffective. Listeners begin to dread praise because it begins to sound false, and they associate negative feedback with it, which they assume is coming next. Also, the desired behavior change is not made because the listener is more likely to focus on the positive rather than the negative.

Feedback should also be timely. People tend to assume that you delay giving the feedback because you are holding a grudge.

You should also follow up when appropriate, and provide positive praise if there is a change in behavior. Express gratitude that they listened to your feedback.

SBI: Situation, Behavior, Impact

Research has shown that focusing on the situation, behavior, and the impact gives the best results over time.  It can be awkward to do so spontaneously.

Situation means anchoring what you are going to say in a specific time and place. The recipient should be able to recall exactly what you are talking about and when it happened. It should have happened recently, for example, "at the conference last week".

Indicate the behavior, the observable action that happened. Imagine a video replay of the event, rather than a judgment about what happened. For example, instead of saying "you were angry", say "you rolled your eyes", "you avoided me for two weeks" or you "banged your fist on the table".

Finish with the impact on others, or on the shared task, or the organization.  The impact is what happened, how someone felt, or the potential consequences.

For example, do not say, "You were rude yesterday". Instead, describe the situation: "During our conference call yesterday…". State the behavior: "I noticed you interrupted several of us on multiple occasions". Then explain the impact: "I was frustrated, and I sense that others were also affected, and I am concerned that the interruptions are getting in the way of the team that we are building". Do not offer solutions. Let the other person respond.

Sometimes it is enough to just ask a question: "How do you think that conference call went yesterday?" Often enough the individual will realize they made a mistake. This approach is especially useful if you are a manager. SBI is about format, not about content. You can be as blunt, sensitive, or even humorous depending on the people involved and their relationship to you.

Giving feedback is a skill that requires practice; the SBI approach gives you a valid formula to use. Over time it will become natural to engage in safe communication.


About the Author

Michael Stiefel, principal of Reliable Software, Inc. is a consultant on software architecture and development and the alignment of information technology with business goals. As a member of an OASIS Technical Committee, he helped develop a core SOA Reference Model and related Reference Architectures. He was a Lecturer in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his research and teaching focus was understanding how people build mental models in order to solve problems. As Adjunct faculty, Stiefel has taught graduate and undergraduate software engineering courses at Northeastern University and Framingham State University.
He explores his interest in the intersection between technology and art in the blog Art and Software.

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Community comments

  • Never do this one thing when giving feedback

    by Menito Bussolini,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Whatever you do, never ever threaten to fire anyone when you're giving them feedback. If you do threaten, they will internally hate you for it, forever. If you don't want them, just fire them directly, but never threaten it. Anyway, of course it's best to be polite when giving feedback, and work toward a constructive future.

    When giving feedback, odds are that you haven't paid attention to what the recipient has been saying. Odds are that you're the incompetent one, so before you talk to them, be sure you have your own act together.

  • Re: Never do this one thing when giving feedback

    by Scott Duncan,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Definitely agree. I don't think it's a good idea to "threaten" anything both due to how it will affect the other person's willingness to hear/receive any other feedback and how it will put the "threatener" in a position to have to follow through on a potentially ill-conceived threat (or look weak/foolish for having made the threat that isn't followed through with later).

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