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Why Criticism Is So Tough To Swallow (And How To Make It Go Down Easier)

We're used to giving "praise sandwiches"—a criticism wedged in between two generic compliments—that give our brains indigestion.

Why Criticism Is So Tough To Swallow (And How To Make It Go Down Easier)
[Photo: Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images]

A few years ago, I was working hard on a scrappy document that would eventually blossom into my first-ever book. It was still very early in the project, and I was hungry for guidance. So I was delighted that a colleague, who I'll call Matt, had agreed to review my efforts and offer some constructive feedback. When he did, it went something like this:

Matt: "You’re doing great! Here’s what I think you should change . . . [followed by a thoughtful explanation of six suggestions for improvement] Other than that, it’s great!"

Me: "Um, okay, thanks."

Matt was diligently following advice he’d once been given about the right way to give feedback. In his mind, he was making a tasty "praise sandwich"—saying one positive thing on either side of his criticism in order to make his comments feel less demotivating. He was trying to be considerate, yet I’d walked away feeling strangely discouraged. It was the opposite of what he’d intended.

That was hardly surprising, though, given a few things we know about the way our brains work.

What Your Brain Does When You're Criticized

At any given time, brains are subconsciously scanning the world around us for dangers to defend against—ready to launch a fight, flight, or freeze response that will protect us from predators or poisons. But the brain doesn’t just guard us against physical threats. Research has found that it also goes on the defensive in response to things that threaten to undermine our social standing and safety, including interactions that make us feel even mildly rejected or incompetent. Since even being glanced at askance by a stranger can be enough to trigger our defenses, you can bet that receiving critical feedback is pretty likely to spark a fight, flight, or freeze response.

That matters because when our brains are in defensive mode, studies have shown that there’s reduced activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s where our most sophisticated mental machinery generally lives: the neural systems responsible for self-control, reasoning, and forethought.

So it’s no wonder we don’t always respond graciously to feedback; it’s quite likely that our most thoughtful, attentive, flexible selves are somewhat offline. In fact, it’s possible that we’re not even properly listening. By the time Matt got to the third of his six suggestions, I was daydreaming about giving up the whole idea of writing a book (and considering what would happen if I perhaps punched him, gently).

And as for Matt's praise? Surely his warm words should have offset the sense of threat in my mind, right? Not exactly. It’s true that our brains constantly seek out rewards as well as threats. That's why we’re drawn toward things that make us feel good—and praise is a social reward that’s very appealing. But on balance, we are more sensitive to threats than to rewards. From an evolutionary standpoint, it's more important to be able to bolt from a burning house than to charge toward a cozy fireside sofa.

What's more, it’s easier for our brains to process and remember specifics than to handle conceptual ideas. Research has found that we remember concrete words like "chair" better than abstract words like "comfort." As a result, if we hear a generic positive statement ("It’s great! You’re great!") followed by a list of specific things we should change, our brains will quickly discount that quick splash of praise and focus entirely on the negatives.

That's what made it so hard for me to digest Matt’s praise sandwich. He meant well, but he might just as well have said, "Hey, here’s a bunch of things you need to do better," since that’s pretty much all I heard.

The Better Way To Give Feedback

Thankfully, this understanding of the brain reveals a little routine that we can all use to ensure that helpful feedback lands as it’s intended. It goes like this:

  1. Tell the other person: "What I like about this is . . ." Give meaningful, specific examples of what you like, and explain why you like them. Aim for as many concrete positive points as you can. Don’t rush.
  2. Then say: "What would make me like it even more is . . ."

The goal in the first of these two steps is to be at least as tangible and forthcoming in your praise as you are in your criticism—not just saying "it’s great," but what specifically is "great" about it. (Matt might've said, "I really liked the way you pulled in survey data to support your argument, for example in the section on page two. It tells a great story and sticks in the reader’s mind.") These sorts of details matter; they make it far more likely that the person properly absorbs the fact that you value aspects of whatever they’ve said or done.

Then, when you introduce your suggestion for improvement with the phrase, "What would make me like it even more," 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. You’re still making the point you need to make, but it feels much less threatening to your listener's competence and self-respect than the usual, "How about doing this differently?"

Taken together, these two sentences can greatly improve your chances of keeping the other person’s brain out of defensive mode as you give them feedback, making it far more likely that you’ll have a productive and good-natured conversation. This way, they can actually process your feedback intelligently and decide whether to act on it.

For what it’s worth, this "What I like . . ." feedback model can help you as the feedback-giver, too, because being forced to find something you like—however hard it is to uncover it—often reveals something useful that you might've missed had you led with your criticisms.

Finally, if you’re the one habitually receiving feedback rather than giving it, you can do what I eventually did with Matt, which is to simply ask him to give me brain-friendly feedback. I didn’t have to use any jargon, either. "First of all, can you tell me exactly what you liked and why?" I said. "It’s important for me to learn from that. I want to know what I should keep doing, or do more of. Then you can tell me what would make you like it even more!" The result? A fine, fistfight-free working relationship—and a finished book to boot.

Caroline Webb is the author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavior Science to Transform Your Working Life (Crown Business, 2016) and is CEO of Sevenshift, a firm specializing in science-based coaching.

Update: A previous version of this article ran with the headline "Why Sweetening Your Criticism With Compliments Makes Everything Worse."

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