How to Give Feedback without Triggering the Fight or Flight Response

If you’re a parent, bring to mind the characteristics you see in your children that come from you – physical/character traits, or phrases they’ve learned up from hearing you say them over the course of years. Needless to say, your child is their own person; they are not you, but they are an expression of you; a part of you (whether that’s biologically and/or environmentally). So if you know your child is in danger, your natural response – without any conscious thought – will be to feel fear and an adrenaline rush, in just the same way as if you were facing the same threat yourself. The same is true when someone criticizes something inherent to your identity – your ethnicity, your sexuality, your weight. What might be a surprise is that research suggests the same is true (albeit to a lesser degree) with your work projects. Feedback perceived as a criticism or threat to your work projects – especially (but not limited to) your creative projects – triggers the same fight or flight response in your limbic system that a threat to your child does. So how can we give feedback on someone’s work that doesn’t trigger that response?

Surprisingly, the answer may be connected to the current Writers Guild of America strike. A side note here: I am a writer myself, and I remember how the 2007 strike affected several shows and movies – including a huge spike in viewership for reality shows such as The Apprentice (who knows how much that impacted the 2016 election?). I’ve been interested in some of the stories and talking points surrounding the strike, especially on the podcast Scriptnotes, hosted by WGA negotiators/screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl, The Last of Us). (In particular, something I’ve heard from a few writers on the picket line is a change from the previous strike: last time the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers – with whom the WGA was negotiating – represented traditional studios; this time the issue is primarily with the streaming arms of conglomerates like Amazon and Apple. A few writers have said they feel a responsibility to use their privilege to show that even Amazon needs to respond to collective action, to make way for other unions to stand up for fairer working conditions too.)

Beyond covering the strike, Scriptnotes often offers advice which is also helpful in the work world outside Hollywood. In particular, a recent episode on giving notes had some salient advice for those of us who give feedback and want to avoid triggering the fight or flight response. Whether you’re producing the next Hollywood blockbuster or simply meeting with a direct report to discuss their progress on their weekly tasks, consider these tips when delivering feedback.

This Week’s Tips:

  • Treat the work that they’ve put into the project so far as an expression of who they are; treat that with respect, just as you would treat them with respect.
  • Remember you’re on the same team; it may be helpful to remind yourself of your shared goals. This might happen before the meeting, or in the case of a higher-stakes conversation, together at the beginning of the meeting; if you learn your goals are different, this would be good to know before going further.
  • Focus more on where you’d like to see a project go, and less on its current state. Use the Atomic Habits model of small changes that will make a profound difference over time.
  • Own your opinions; don’t treat them as facts. Use phrases like “Personally, I’d prefer to see something more [x] here,” rather than, “This is weak.”
  • Share some thoughts as questions instead of statements. Ask “Could you help me understand what your goal is here?” instead of, “You’ve lost me with this.”
  • Ask when you need to use a “fineliner” rather than a “Sharpie”. We will expand on this in a future article: Sometimes it might feel easier to give feedback that is broad – think of a teacher crossing off huge sections of an essay using a thick sharpie marker – but it is often more helpful to give more specific feedback; think of a thin pen circling key words that stand out, or suggesting changes for the next draft.

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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