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3 Tips on Giving Brain-Friendly Feedback

The ability to give good feedback is an art. Most of us struggle with it. From time to time, we may need to deliver constructive feedback on someone’s performance whether it’s to get a project back on track or as part of an annual review.

Before having the conversation, it’s important to set a clear goal for the outcome. If you’re upset with the other person, it may feel cathartic to express your anger, maybe even questioning a person’s competence. However, it’s important to understand some basic facts about how our brains are wired. The functions of key structures in our brains mean that few of us respond well to language that feels like a personal attack.

The Two-System Brain

The brain has two parallel systems that compete to control our responses. One is slow and deliberate. The centre of this system is the neocortex, that mass of wrinkled grey that we picture when we think of the brain. The neocortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex, calmly evaluates new information and uses logic and reason to determine the best response.

There is a second, more ancient system centred in the almond-shaped structure at the base of the brain known as the amygdala. It works fast, sacrificing accuracy, to counter any potential threat.

Problems arise because this ancient survival system, perfectly adapted to protecting our physical well-being, treats threats to our professional status in much the same way as spotting a hungry lion across an open savannah. In either case, the amygdala triggers the well-known fight-flight-freeze response.

In the case of the lion, the response might be to face the lion and grab anything that might be useful as a weapon (fight), run away (flight), or play dead in the hope that the lion loses interest (freeze). The same reactions in the workplace can lead to us to snap angrily at a colleague, to withdraw into our shell, or to keep our head down in the hopes that anything unpleasant just blows over. None of these responses has much of a chance to improve things.

The Discover-Defend Axis

Caroline Webb, author of “How to Have a Good Day,” describes these parallel systems as the two poles of a “discover-defend axis.” When we’re in defensive mode the adrenal glands pump hormones like adrenaline and cortisol through our bodies. These hormones prime us for action, diverting all available energy to staving off threats—for example, by fueling our muscles and even sharpening our eyesight.

And what about that prefrontal cortex where the calm reflection of the deliberate system happens? Activity is greatly reduced. This is bad news when the threat isn’t a physical threat, but any number of common workplace challenges.

So, what can we give feedback while keeping one another in the productive flow of that discovery mode?

Brain-Friendly Feedback

According to Webb, “the trick is to express your views without making the other person wrong.” Look for ways in which they are partly right, show that you recognize and value those things and then gently guide them in the direction you’d like them to go. She adds, “None of this means you sidestep any shortcomings; it just means calling them out in a way that’s going to make things better, rather than worse.”

Webb describes three techniques for giving brain-friendly feedback:

Technique 1: “What I Like About That Is…”

  • Tell the other person: “What I like about that is…” Give meaningful, specific examples.
  • Then say: “What would make me like it even more is…”

By following this technique, “you’re framing your comment as an idea that—if explored—could take the other person from good to great, rather than something they were really dumb not to have done.”

Technique 2: “Yes, and…”

  • Avoid the joy-killing phrase “Yes, but…”
  • Instead, try “Yes, and…” so that your comments will be seen as adding your own perspective rather than being dismissive of the other person’s

The “Yes, and…” approach “allows you to introduce important considerations without closing down the other person’s ideas.”

Technique 3: “What Would Need to Be True to Make That Work?”

  • Instead of saying “That won’t work because of this, that and the other…,” try saying “What would need to be true to make that work (well)?”

The hypothetical phrasing promotes a feeling of collaborative exploration of an idea, rather than a brusque and thoughtless dismissal. Through this process better ideas spring forth and everyone gets to share in the credit.

Finally, on a recent Netflix special, Jim Carrey noted that there is a difference between truth and truth with compassion. Being brutally honest with a colleague, in the end, is just being brutal. It is possible for feedback to address any important concerns, while maintaining and even deepening professional relationships.

John Burton is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Victor Romero

Yeah, that “Yes, BUT…” construct is a buzz-killer, right? I’m on a mission to remove “but” from my own vocabulary and find that effort forces my brain to think positive. Hey, not always successful, but (Ha! I slipped up!) I’m now conscious of the power of that little word. Thx/Gracias/Merci, Mr. Burton.

John Burton

Thanks Victor. I love that idea of removing “but” from your vocabulary. I want to try that too! I sent an email the other day and after sending it read it over again. I noticed how if I’d just changed a “but” to an “and” that the tone would have been much improved. It’s amazing how small changes can make a big difference.