What the Brain is Doing When We Get Feedback


In the “6 Most Dreaded Words” we met David and Shauna, two consultants in a feedback discussion after a presentation. A discussion that is shaping up to be largely one-way (although Shauna is having a robust conversation in her head) and more defensive than effective.

How can they have a more productive feedback conversation?

Understanding what happens in the brain when we receive feedback may offer a different approach.

Neuroscience is revealing how incredibly complex our brains are. Our brain is constantly processing feedback from our environment. Is it the room too hot? Is it too cold? How do we respond to stay at a comfortable temperature?

We need feedback to figure how to safely navigate in a complex world. Yet feedback, particularly unsolicited feedback from someone else, can also generate a threat response in our brain.

When we sense danger, our brain initiates a defense response to focus our energy and information processing to respond to the threat. Stress chemicals are generated and energy is re-routed to allow us to navigate in relation to the perceived threat, maybe getting aggressive, maybe defensive. This diminishes our brains ability to “rationally” process and make sense of the situation. We go on ‘auto pilot’ as a means of self-preservation.

Rarely will feedback from a boss or colleague be a life-or-death situation, however there is still the danger, as far as the brain is concerned, that it will impact our self-preservation, our sense of self. Our stress levels elevate, just as they would if we were in physical danger. You can see this is happening in Shauna’s self-talk in the first story.

Another factor in how we receive feedback is the patterns created by our brain to be more efficient at processing the billions of pieces of information it must deal with. While neuroscience has confirmed there is some consistency in what the different parts of the brain do for us, we each wind up with different things that ‘stick’ shaped by our unique experience, upbringing, and culture. What stands out for me, may not stand out for you.

Imagine you are sitting in a room with David and a bunch of others. David says the room is too cold and insists that everyone put on their coats. To you, the room feels just right. What is your reaction when David insists that everyone wear their coats?  Uncomfortable? Defensive? Resentful?

Feedback offered by others is rarely neutral as it usually comes from the perspective of the giver which is shaped by their experiences, not necessarily those of the receiver. It is no wonder that feedback often seems to fall on deaf ears. Why do I need to wear a coat? I don’t feel cold!

Not only is the receivers mind not in tune with the givers perspective, the receivers brain has gone into stress mode when faced with a perceived threat to their psychological safety.  

So how do we approach feedback considering these two responses of the brain:

  1. Feedback is often perceived as a threat, activating a stress/defense response.
  2. Feedback is flavored by the givers experience and often falls flat to the receiver.

First, feedback must be provided in an environment that reduces the stress/defense response. This requires trust and openness, otherwise the brain spends its time responding to the perceived threat instead of processing how to integrate the feedback into action.

Second, what to do next must be the receiver’s idea. Perhaps enhanced by the giver’s suggestion. Let’s rewind David and Shawna and see how this would work.

David and Shauna leave the meeting which did not go well.

David: Shauna can we take a few minutes and talk about how that went and what we need to do next? (instead of focusing solely on Shauna, David this time includes himself in the review.)

Shauna: (a little cautiously…) Sure David.

David: I have the feeling we didn’t hit the mark with them. I haven’t interacted with them much, but you have. I’d like to get your take on this. What can we build on? Where can we re-focus? (David takes some ownership of his role in the situation. Acknowledges that Shauna has a stronger relationship with them. Projects that he is open and curious about her perspective)

Shauna: (feeling relieved she is off the hot seat and not being blamed for the poor meeting) Well, I think they were confused because they heard some things we had not talked about before.

Let me speak first to where we can re-focus. It would help me if I could go over the strategic direction with you. Then I could make sure to highlight those points as I talk them through the implementation we have been working on. (Shauna is careful about not accusing David’s failure to get up to speed and putting him on the defensive. Instead she frames it in context of what she needs to be more effective.)

David: You’re right. I just got so busy with my other client, I didn’t make time for this. I trusted that you had a good relationship with them. Lets’ take a few minutes to do that alignment now so we are ready to meet with them again as soon as they are free. (David admits responsibility and gives Shauna positive feedback on her client relationship).

Shauna: Sure, I have some time for that now. Now as far as what we can build on. The other thing I’d like to do is introduce the meeting since I have the long-standing relationship with them. In my opening I would highlight some key points of the implementation that will tie into the strategy that you will present. Then I could close with some more of the details. Next time, I will be more forceful in insisting we meet beforehand so we can be joined at the hip on this. (Shauna offers one thing she wants to build on–her relationship with the client–and two areas to refocus: tying into the strategy, and being more forceful).

David: Yep, with all the fires going on for me right now, I hate to admit but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Definitely keep pinging me on this so I make time for it. I appreciate all the work you’ve done on this. I like your suggestion to introduce the meeting. You know them better than I. There will be a level of comfort and trust. We owe them a good product and I need your help to keep me on track with them.  (David’s re-focus is acknowledging he wants Shauna’s help in serving the client best.)

To be effective, feedback is best done from a space of curiosity and support. If feedback becomes a ‘chewing out’ or ‘reprimanding’ the brain’s defense mechanism is activated and the change you seek is unlikely to last, if it takes at all. The receiver of feedback must feel there is positive support. Too often a culture of fear and blame obscures any value an ‘azimuth check’ can have.

Feedback works best if initiated by the receiver. We will always have a higher chance of implementing it if we come up with the idea. In many organizations, unfortunately, asking for feedback is not the norm. Giving feedback—with the resulting brain shut down effect—is what happens. Asking for feedback may actually be viewed as a sign of weakness. This is unfortunate and totally counter to the brain’s need for feedback in order to adjust for survival.

If you are in the position of asking for [or giving] feedback, here are two powerful questions to use:

  • What can I build on? [What do you feel you can build on? Would you like my perspective?] This question addresses what is going well and should continue/expand.
  • Where should I re-focus? [Where do you feel you can re-focus? Would you like my perspective?] This question focuses on an area that could be improved to increase effectiveness.

 What have you observed about your thought process when you have received feedback from someone?


 Photo credit: Photo by Matthew Brodeur on Unsplash


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