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How to train your brain to welcome constructive feedback

Receiving feedback is hard, but applying these mindfulness techniques can help you get ahead.

How to train your brain to welcome constructive feedback
[Photo: Kira auf der Heide/Unsplash]

Even though it can be extremely helpful, few of us like to receive feedback. That’s because there’s a phantom word that floats in front of feedback, says M. Tamra Chandler, author of Feedback (and Other Dirty Words): “negative.”

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“Most of us grow up in a world where feedback is criticism, and sometimes it’s mean-spirited,” she says. “When someone says they need to give us feedback, we immediately think it will be bad. And even if it’s not that bad, we overinflate it and make it a bigger deal than it is.”

Chandler says humans are positively negative. Our brains weigh and process negative information more than positive. And our natural reaction to feedback is fear, which triggers our fight-or-flight response.

“Humans are social beings, and we see our own value through our connections and the community and the way we see ourselves in that community,” says Chandler. “In theory, feedback threatens the status of how we perceive ourselves—that others aren’t seeing us the way we think. We feel connected, and because of that feedback can feel like danger.”

The way we respond will depend on which part of our brain is listening. Chandler says the brain has two “addresses,” the wise brain and the reptilian brain.

“Fear puts us into the reptilian brain, and that shuts down logical thinking,” she says. “The body temperature heats up, and your hearing sharpens. It’s a survival instinct. The problem is that you can only be in one address at a time, and there will be a disconnect between who you want to be in the moment and who shows up.”

To effectively listen to feedback, you have to move back to your wise brain, and that means getting back into your body with mindfulness techniques. Here are four things to do in the moment:

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1. Feel your feet

Flatten your feet into the floor and feel your toes touching the ground, Chandler suggests. How do they feel? Keep feeling the physical sensation as you breathe in and out a few times.

2. Listen to your surroundings

Shift your focus to the sounds around you, such as computer keyboard clicks, traffic, or birds outside. Focus only on the sounds for a few seconds.

3. Rub your fingertips

Feel the sensation of rubbing your fingertips together. This can often be done without the other person noticing, says Chandler.

4. Hold a cup of coffee or tea

Before you go into a meeting where you know you’ll be receiving feedback, get a warm beverage. Hold the cup in your hand and feel the temperature of the liquid.

Practice being in the wise brain

While you can attempt to consciously move into your wise brain in the moment, practicing it every day will make it easier to do. Any activity that helps you practice mindfulness can help. Instead of letting your mind wander as you get ready for work, for example, focus on what you’re doing. When you’re brushing your teeth, feel the sensation of the brush. When you’re in the shower, feel the water.

As you get better moving from the reptilian brain to the wise brain, you’ll eventually change the way your brain perceives feedback, says Chandler.

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“Microhabits start to carve pathways in your brain,” she says. “Like a garden path, the more you walk down it, the more defined it gets. The more you practice being in your wise brain, the easier it will be moving and staying there.”

Being in this mindset when you receive feedback means you’ll hear it in a less dramatic way, says Chandler. “You’ll be able to engage in conversation instead of being defensive,” she says. “If you seek or receive unexpected feedback, you can ask questions that help you translate and understand it. If we want to grow, we need insights that help us improve. Feedback should be a good thing.”

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