How to Share Difficult Messages in a “Brain-friendly” Way

A recent Gallup study found that only 26% of the U.S. workforce strongly agreed that the feedback they get from managers or supervisors helps them to improve their work. Clearly, and as most people agree, giving or gaining feedback can be difficult.

Further research indicates there are two primary reasons for the difficulty, which can be associated with both giving feedback or sharing difficult information:

  • The feedback giver (or seeker) is too indirect, so others don’t recognize the importance or significance of what is being shared. In fact, in many cases the feedback shared has no impact at all and is quickly dismissed or forgotten, because the brain doesn’t recognize the input as worthwhile!
  • The feedback giver (or seeker) is too direct, thus causing others to become defensive; rather than listening to or giving consideration to the feedback they are distracted by what’s often called the rebuttal tendency, which means that instead of listening they are focused on how they will rebut whatever is being said. Even worse, when others react defensively it can cause the feedback giver (or seeker) to become defensive as well! Symptoms include loss of focus, sudden reliance on filler words (i.e., ah, uhm, etc.), and making potentially antagonistic remarks.

    A similar reaction to overly direct feedback is an “amygdala hijack.” It happens when a situation causes your amygdala (the section of our brains that reacts to emotional stimuli) to hijack control of your response to stress by disabling portions of the frontal lobes.

Fortunately, a simple formula for effectively giving feedback or for sharing difficult messages in a “brain-friendly” way was recently shared during a TED talk by Cognitive Psychologist LeeAnn Renniger:

  1. Micro yes. Begin the interaction by asking a short, but important, closed-ended question to gain initial acceptance or buy-in and to give the other person a sense of autonomy (they can, after all, answer either yes or no). The objective is to get them to say, “yes.”

    For example, you might ask, “Do you have five minutes to talk about yesterday’s meeting?”
  1. Data point. To help others avoid confusion and to make sure your message is clear, make a concise and specific statement about the action or behavior you want to address. By avoiding ambiguous or “blur” words, you will enable the other person to more clearly understand the issue at hand.

    For example, “During yesterday’s meeting you agreed to send a follow-up email with instructions by 11am this morning. It’s now after 3pm and I still don’t have it.”

    The data point need not only refer to a negative situation. For example, “During yesterday’s meeting you shared a great example of how the order processing works best!”
  1. Impact statement. Explain how the action or behavior impacted you.

    For example, “The story really made it easier for me to understand how the process should work, and will make it easier for me to do my part going forward.”
  1. Question. Wrap-up with another question that is geared toward confirming understanding and gaining commitment.

    For example, “How do you see it?” Or “What do you think?”

While simple in structure, Renniger explained this approach is a scientifically proven method for gaining the attention of others and for giving feedback in a meaningful way.

Possibly most important, having a set of guidelines can make it easier for the feedback giver or seeker to approach potentially awkward interactions with greater levels of confidence, and to execute more effectively.

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