The six most lucrative words in the world are probably “Would you like fries with that?”
The six most unnerving words in the world are probably “Can I give you some feedback?”
Few words set us on edge as much as these. A Psychologically Safe environment allows honest conversations between colleagues, making feedback useful and less threatening, and putting people on our side.
But let’s be honest. Feedback can be tricky. After all, not many of us like being told we did something wrong.
So an important part of creating Psychological Safety, and a context where we can be candid with each other, is in receiving feedback well.
Here we’ll talk about a common situation, a familiar trick, and an explanation for why it’s so useful to know how to manage what’s happening to you.
And there’s a little bit of magic near the end.
Taking feedback is complex
Most of us have been on the end of feedback that didn’t go well. As soon as you hear the words, you might run through a list of questions that sound something like:
- Is it genuine?
- Is it for my benefit?
- What have I done wrong?
- What don’t they like about my work?
- What don’t they like about me?
- Am I in trouble?
- How do I defend myself?
- What excuses/rationalisations/arguments do I have?
They’re designed to prepare us to deal with a threat. Even in a Psychologically Safe environment, there are numerous factors involved in the threat assessment process, including:
- the nature of the relationship you have with the other person
- what difference in power might exist
- how you assess their credibility
- how attached to or invested you are in the issue at stake
- how it’s delivered
- whether you’ve had a good experience of feedback before
- how interested you are in learning
and so on.
It almost always feels threatening
Your brain is exquisitely sensitive to threat.
Safety is a primal need.
It’s constantly scanning your environment for things that could be a threat, and it prioritises threat detection and threat management as high priority tasks. It likes safety, and Psychological Safety is no different.
Consequently, your brain must constantly make assessments on whether it should approach or avoid things. This approach/avoidance process happens quickly and frequently. The more uncertain you are of a situation, the more assessments it makes and the more likely it is to interpret something as a threat.
Feeling threatened makes us defensive
When we hear those six words, our usual response is defensiveness, because the brain has assessed the situation as threatening. The structures that underlie this reaction are in your brain’s limbic system, and include the amygdala and hippocampus, cingulate gyrus and hypothalamus. Chief among them is the amygdala. Additionally, your orbitofrontal cortex is believed to be a key structure in estimating probability and the cost of threats.
They operate extremely efficiently together, making assessments we generally aren’t aware of. Even if you are aware of something, your brain may have come to that understanding nearly two seconds before you registered it consciously.
It does this, in part, because two of the brain’s great talents are time travel and pattern recognition. That is, it has the ability to project itself forward in time and imagine what could happen. By analysing salient features in the environment (e.g. body language, tone of voice, facial expression, key words, context), and pattern matching this information with what it already knows from previous experience, your brain aims to predict whether the current situation is a likely to pose a threat.
It predicts, because this provides a measure of certainty, and it far prefers certainty over uncertainty. Your brain spends a good deal of time testing hypotheses, from which it builds predictive models to help it determine (with less effort each time) what it should do in any given situation. Unless it knows otherwise, it will act conservatively, and in the interests of self-preservation.
In other words, safety first.
Once it decides, it then takes whatever appropriate action it thinks necessary. Note that, what it thinks necessary. Not what you think necessary.
You’ll know this as the fight/flight response.
Threats derail us from other mental activities
To deal with the threat, the brain directs blood to those areas required to manage it, including the limbic system mentioned earlier.
Because it consumes more energy in managing those areas, it disengages from typical higher order functions in your fancy prefrontal cortex, such as reasoning, creativity and problem solving (which take energy), resorts to repeating habitual behaviours because they take little mental effort to generate, and thus frees up its own resources to manage the threat.
A consequence is that you have fewer mental resources available for other things, as they’re directed to managing the threat.
Physical effects occur too
At the same time, a host of changes occur that prepare your body for action. The chemistry that initiates these changes originates in your limbic system. Subsequently, a branch of your autonomic nervous system (autonomic systems are not under conscious control) called the sympathetic nervous system, hits alert.
Imagine the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) as an accelerator that revs you up. Its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the brake, does the opposite. The SNS handles fight/flight. The PNS handles rest/digest.
In fight/flight, blood is directed away from your internal organs and to your large muscle groups (reduced blood flow to the gut inhibits digestion and is responsible for the ‘butterflies’ feeling) to help you act. Among other things, your heart rate increases, pupils dilate, your mouth might get dry and your palms might sweat.
The slow acting cortisol, and the fast-acting adrenaline, are released into your bloodstream. We’ll have more to say of them another time.
Together, these responses might help you avoid an oncoming car, but don’t help much with incoming feedback. When you’re are trying to receive feedback graciously, and not be defensive, you’re actively fighting your own brain and its inclination to protect your safety.
Wrestling with your biology
Even if you know good feedback, meant and given well, in a good environment, from a trusted colleague, may be good for you, it can still be threatening. Your sympathetic nervous system is still running hot, and it needs to settle down before you can reclaim some brain space to listen to what’s being said.
What you need to do is breathe. Slowly and deeply. Just like your grandma may have said.
We usually take between 10 and 20 breaths a minute. You need to slow that to fewer than 10 breaths a minute, and focus on shorter inhalations and longer exhalations, preferably breathing from your diaphragm.
Slowed, diaphragmatic breathing shifts the SNS/PNS balance to the PNS, like taking your foot off the gas and putting it on the brake. Fewer than 10 breaths per minute, with longer exhalations than inhalations.
What your grandma probably didn’t know, is that this has everything to do with your vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve
There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves coming from the brain. The vagus nerve pair is the longest, largest and most connected, snaking from the left and right sides of your brainstem down into your abdomen, and connecting all major organs with the brain.
Its widely branching structure gives it its name; vagus means wandering.
And one of its primary jobs is managing the parasympathetic nervous system, the PNS. Vagus nerve activity is modulated by breathing. When you inhale, vagus nerve activity is suppressed. When you exhale, slowly, its activity is facilitated.
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing, with fewer than 10 breaths per minute, with shorter inhalations and longer exhalations, facilitates your vagus nerve to dampen SNS activity by activating the PNS. Rest/digest takes over from fight/flight. It’s a slick piece of physiology to know about.
It’s putting your foot on your threat system’s brake pedal.
A little piece of magic
And here’s the bonus.
Your amygdala is the key structure in identifying threat. It has the ability to hijack your brain for its own needs.
But when you can dampen your SNS and facilitate your PNS, you minimise the threat response and restore function to areas of your brain the amygdala disconnected. You have more mental resources available to you. You have more mental capability.
Now, you can shift from feeling threatened. You can welcome information to help you develop. You can feel grateful someone took the time to help you.
Provided the feedback giver is sincere, you can recognise they’re on your side. You can reframe them as an ally. At that point, the amygdala changes teams.
In an astonishing piece of neural gymnastics, it backflips.
It then uses its significant neural power to reinforce the social connection you have with this person, this ally. They become significant to you and your amygdala, which now tracks them intently and continues to strengthen the social bond.
A threat no longer, the amygdala then works to keep you connected to this person, because they’re safe for you. It does the same with a close team and friends.
- The brain, and especially the amygdala, is obsessed with threat and safety and will override other brain functions to keep you safe
- Deep breathing, fewer than 10 breaths per minute, with long exhalations, activates the vagus nerve
- Activating the vagus nerve suppresses the fight/flight SNS and activates the rest/digest PNS, restoring deactivated brain functions
- You can then reinterpret the situation as non-threatening, which is evidenced by your now activated rest/digest system
- The amygdala will see the person and even the situation as safe, and actively work to strengthen your social bond with them.