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Why giving feedback in your personal relationships may not get the result you want and what you can do about it.

By Prime Advisory, 20 October 2020

When you partner or someone close to you asks, “Can I give you some feedback?” how do you react? If you are human, your stress response will immediately switch on as you instantly brace yourself for what no doubt will be feedback on how you have messed up.  In the same moment, you start worrying about the impact of the feedback, how you will need to justify your actions and perhaps retaliate with some feedback of your own.

This is a sign that your primitive brain, responsible for your survival flight, fight or flee response is switched on and in the driver’s seat. With its seatbelt securely fastened, the primitive brain has detected a threat (i.e. incoming feedback) and initiated a cascade of stress hormones to be dumped into your system.  It also switches off all those parts of the brain (i.e. our thinking brain) that require either too much energy to run in this perceived crisis or may try and prevent it from fighting, fleeing or freezing.  This allows the primitive brain to focus on one thing and one thing only – getting away from the danger in front of it. Yes, that means that our primitive brains cannot differentiate between a perceived threat of receiving feedback to a real threat of being eaten by a lion! The kind of life-threatening event that occurred back when we lived in caves and gathered nuts, fruit and seeds for dinner.

Your brain and feedback.
Logically, getting feedback from someone is not life-threatening. Even if the feedback is hurtful, spiteful or maybe even has a ring of truth to it, you are not going to die. You are still alive and kicking once the words are said. However, most of us have not developed the ability to receive feedback without feeling a level of anxiety. Our first jump is often to the negative and that this feedback is probably a personal attack on who we are or what we have done. Even feedback that may be constructive and resourceful to the relationship. All the primitive brain perceives is a threat, and it responds in the same way it would have 100,000 years ago when we were faced with a real threat, such as a hungry lion.

Understanding our primitive brain’s default position and need to keep us safe and out of danger provides essential context for the person giving the feedback. Let’s assume your goal is to help improve your relationship rather than intentionally be critical and undermine the other person. Even if you’re coming from a loving place that is well-intentioned and genuinely invested in the relationship, it doesn’t mean the other person will be open to receiving your feedback.

The minute the person you’re offering the feedback to gets that you are about to deliver negative or critical feedback, their sympathetic or flight, fight or freeze nervous system switches on like the lights on a pokey machine when you’ve just pulled a winning four cherry combination. This activation serves the purpose of preparing their body for intense physical activity, the kind of action you need when you are running away from someone who is chasing you down a dark alley with a machete. In the process of preparing for the sprint of a lifetime, the person’s ability to thoughtfully receive and consider the feedback you’re offering, no matter how well intended, has gone walkabout.

Their brain literally can’t handle it. And this is the reason why giving negative feedback has been shown time and time again to have very little correlation to improving relationships. Even if your partner looks like they are fine on the outside as you string some well-intended sentences together, their brain is not in the right state to effectively receive, consider and apply your input.  All the required resources to do this have already shut down at the mention of ‘feedback’. It’s like the hamster wheel is turning but the hamsters not home.

More positive feedback isn’t the answer either.
Let’s face it, receiving feedback at the best of times is not a pleasant experience. The reason why we have this visceral negative reaction to feedback is that we’ve learnt growing up or been trained to believe that most if not all feedback is usually critical, and seldomly positive. Years of being reprimanded by parents or teachers have left their mark. Particularly if you grew up in the 1960s where physical punishment at school was commonplace, and teacher’s seldomly gushed with compliments.

Looking at your personal relationship perhaps providing positive feedback when your partner does something great is also not commonplace. So what if you suddenly start showering them with tons of positive feedback? Will this teach them that not all feedback is negative and therefore tame their primitive brain from climbing into the driver’s seat when they hear the word ‘feedback’? Unfortunately, this tactic still has its problems.

By all means, give out all the praise and recognition you can muster in your relationship. Make sure it’s authentic and honest, with no trace of sarcastic undertones, because most of us can spot ‘phoney’ a mile off. This, in itself, will probably improve your relationship. However, research shows that it requires at least five pieces of positive feedback to adequately balance one negative piece of feedback. That’s a heck of a lot of positive feedback in my opinion! It is also a tough habit to create and maintain, not because you lack the desire to do it but because we are focused on so many other things during the day that takes up our energy and time.

Making a sandwich of feedback.
Something I learnt in my corporate days was this concept of sandwich feedback. What it essentially means is that you sandwich crappy feedback between two fresh and yummy ‘slices’ of positive feedback. So, it may go something like this… “I love how hard you work to help put food on the table, however, please put the toilet seat down after you pee, but overall you are a great hubby.” Sorry to tell you but this doesn’t work either because of what psychologists call conditioning.

The reason being is the person you’re giving feedback to gets used to the fact that after every piece of positive feedback, negative feedback is likely to follow.  Like the lingering stench after you have emptied the bins on bin night but not washed out that liquid residue at the bottom. So even when you are complimenting them on the beautiful dinner they just cooked, they have become so conditioned to expect negative feedback to follow, their pokey machine lines up another four cherries and starts glowing like a Christmas tree. Within milliseconds the primitive brain climbs into the driver’s seat, and you know what happens after that. Worse yet, the two separate pieces of great feedback you so carefully planned, have lost their impact and the primitive brain is already changing lanes and heading for the hills.

There’s a better way of giving negative feedback.
To really make an impact in your relationship, you need to evolve the way you give negative  feedback from feedback being merely to correct or punish, to feedback that inspires growth and wanting to change. This is the difference between saying, “Don’t you dare get in my face again!” and “How could you approach me differently next time?” The first way may trigger some memories of you being dragged into the principal’s office to be reprimanded with a cane (only in my schooling days), while the latter takes a more collaborative and constructive approach. We are in this together.

Why does this approach make all the difference? Remember that critical feedback leads to our sympathetic nervous system lighting up and sending us into survival mode. However, when we focus on non-judgemental and ‘future looking’ statements, the primitive brain does not feel under threat.  Instead of the sympathetic nervous system switching on it stays nice and quiet, and the parasympathetic nervous system turns on instead. This is the rest and digest nervous system, which has the opposite impact on how receptive we are to the feedback message. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming us down and opens up our minds to receive the message, consider new possibilities and grow from the experience.

Below are several examples of what you could say:

  • Instead of saying, “I wouldn’t have done it that way,” say, “What do you reckon might happen if we tried XYZ?”
  • Instead of saying, “You need to improve how you talk to my mother,” say, “Based on what you know about my mum, how could you approach her differently to help her be more open to what you have to say?”
  • Instead of saying, “Your plan clearly didn’t work,” say, “I’d really like to get this done by the end of the month. How do you think we can get there?”
  • Instead of saying, “I don’t understand why you can’t get the garage sorted it looks like a bomb hit it,” say, “It will be so great when we have the garage done don’t you reckon? What do you need to make sure the garage gets sorted?”

This is the difference between demanding and collaborating. It opens up a conversation about how things can get done versus focusing on past failures. The aim is to get the other person to commit to a different behaviour moving forward that will positively impact your relationship. If they renege on their commitments, it opens up an opportunity to have a tougher conversation. It also indicates to them that you consider yourself to be in this together, and are willing to support them as needed.

There’s still a place for tougher conversations.
When you frame feedback in this way, you set the expectations for future behaviour in your relationship. This doesn’t however mean the other person will meet that expectation. They may not rise to the occasion or follow through on the commitments they have made. When this happens again and again, it is absolutely okay to take the conversation to the next level and create a firmer demand for what you need. How these conversations unfold is a different article for a different day, however, here is the key takeaway: those tougher conversations should not be step one of the process of improving your relationship.

By approaching feedback in this way, your create more space for your partner, family member or friend to have a constructive conversation, effectively hear and synthesise what you have to say and be clear on what your expectations are. If you do this well, you will potentially eliminate the need for more challenging conversations to take place later on.  The more open and honest we are upfront about what we are feeling or what we need helps create healthy relationships where conversations can be had, and we feel heard and appreciated.

Author: Leanne Wall
E: [email protected]


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