The World of Work Project

Receiving Feedback Is Threatening: Our Social Threat Response

Receiving feedback is threatening and can trigger our brains threat responses. Though we want to learn and develop, most people find negative, constructive or critical feedback socially threatening.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Feedback is Difficult to Receive

We know that when feedback is provided with good intentions and designed to help us develop as individuals then it is a good thing. We know we should value it and seek it out. But at the same time, receiving feedback is really hard!

Why is that? Well, it’s because it’s a really emotional process.

Sheila Heen says in her book, “Thanks for the Feedback“, that feedback is difficult to receive because it can be socially threatening.

In fact, in some instances receiving feedback is threatening enough to triggers our brains’ threat responses, a subject we’ve covered in our discussion of emotional intelligence.

A toy gun - receiving feedback is threatening and can trigger the brains threat reseponse
Feedback can trigger negative emotional responses.

Sheila identifies three types of triggers associated with feedback that can cause threat responses to occur.

Truth Triggers

Truth triggers occur when individuals receive a piece of feedback that they do not think is true. When this happens they sense unfairness and injustice, and this can trigger a strong emotional response.

If a truth trigger occurs in a feedback conversation, then the learning messages associated with the feedback will be ignored as all of the feedback recipient’s emotional energy will be focused on the injustice of the situation.

Relationship Triggers

Relationship triggers occur when individuals receive a piece of feedback from someone with whom they have a challenging relationship, or who they believe doesn’t have the right to give them feedback. Issues of credibility or status could exist, or general dislike may be a factor.

In general, it is hard for people to see past negative relationships and positively receive feedback when relationship triggers occur.

Feedback from an idol might be easier to receive than from someone you don’t respect.

Identity Triggers

Identity triggers occur when an individual receives a piece of information that they accept as true and which challenges their sense of identity or belief about who they are and how they work. Moments of revelation like this can be hugely uncomfortable, particularly when they cause someone to reassess their perception of how valuable or respected they are.

Once a person has experienced an identity trigger, they may struggle to effectively listen to any more feedback.

In Conclusion

The key message here is that receiving feedback is threatening. Negative feedback can be very hard to receive. This is the case for several different reasons, but all of the reasons lead to the same effect. Receiving feedback can trigger us as individuals and instigate complex emotional responses that get the brain’s defense mechanisms up and running. While this is a natural process, it’s still possible to practice and get better at receiving feedback.

Learning More

Those of you who have spoken to us will know we have pretty strong views on feedback. We understand that receiving feedback well can be difficult and that feedback can feel like a social threat. We also know that receiving feedback can be triggering, causing our amygdala responses (fight or flight) to kick in. Given this, we think it’s good to focus on learning to receive feedback well before focusing on learning to give feedback well.

There are several posts in this site on various feedback tools and models which might be helpful. These include 360 degree feedback, the stop, start continue framework, The COIN model and the CEDAR model. There are also some tools we think you should avoid, including the feedback sandwich.

Our second podcast on feedback might also be helpful. In it we have a conversation with a feedback specialist, Joe Hirsch. You can listen to it below.

The World of Work Project View

Receiving feedback is threatening. Getting negative feedback is really difficult. It just always is. Understanding why it’s difficult makes it a bit easier, and understanding the specific triggers associated with it is helpful, but it is still normally difficult.

In part receiving feedback is difficult because whenever your accept feedback, part of you is saying “you’re right and I’m wrong”, and that upsets your relationship balance and sense of pride in who you are.

Overall we think that practicing receiving feedback is very important and that the three triggers identified by Sheila Heen are a very helpful framework through which to do so. We also believe that learning how to receive feedback well helps people learn how to deliver it well.

As with most frameworks of this nature, it’s important to remain mindful and aware of your thoughts and emotions when you’re in feedback conversations. Remaining aware of, and understanding, what you’re thinking and feeling will help ensure you manage the conversations well. Receiving feedback is always threatening, but we can get better at it.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

Most of the core thinking for this post derives from Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book, “Thanks for the Feedback“.

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