Given Negative Feedback and Felt Unable to Control Your Emotions? Here’s What You Can Do About It

Your Line Manager sits you in a one to one appraisal meeting.

They say, “you are difficult to work with and you are not a team player because you gave John constructive feedback” and they carry on with a “shopping list” of things you did wrong in the last few months.

As as a footnote they add: “Ah, and by the way, your KPIs have been achieved and your delivery has been marked as outstanding”.

You feel like a rabbit in the headlights. You feel overwhelmed with emotion and you might even well up. You want to justify, defend and explain but you can’t get a word in edge-ways.

Your mind starts to wander, searching in desperation scenarios where you might have done or said the wrong thing, you start doubting everything you ever said or did, wondering if all your life you have been living a lie, maybe you are actually a difficult person and awful to work with! You feel you don’t know what you are doing, maybe your colleagues never liked you, and on and on. You were told “this is a flat hierarchy” and “feedback is always welcome” but you are now finding out the boundaries, that this was not actually true.

You become paranoid about your abilities, doubting even the smallest things and wondering if you are doing them wrong. Your voice is frozen, your jaw seized up and you can’t speak.

You become submissive and (if you can unlock your jaw from shock) you start to say “yes” to everything they say and (if you can muster the courage) you ask what they’d like you to do instead.

You go home to your partner or friends and ask for reassurance. You tell them what happened and they tell you that you are not difficult. They are kind and reassuring but your brain tells you “they are just being nice because they are my family/friends” so your confidence is at an all time low. You are unsure what you should say in future meetings and you are very quiet for a while, feeling bruised.

What Just Happened?

When you joined the company you were told the culture is one of collaborative consensus and a flat hierarchy and all those lovely and nice things.

In reality, this is the culture the boss likes to think they have, but not the culture they actually have.

When you were honest and gave constructive feedback, the ego (of the person who received the feedback) took over and they forgot all about the culture of collaboration or what they had said they are open to feedback.

You discovered (the hard way) the boundaries — and what the culture actually is like.

Biologically, the moment they started with the “shopping list” of things they didn’t like about you, your brain would have gone into the state the amygdala uses to protect its survival: fight, flight or freeze mode.

Fight / Flight — you might have wanted to JDE — Justify, Defend, Explain what happened or

Freeze — your jaw seizes, you lose your voice and you feel unable to speak, your mind goes blank.

You became unable to speak likely because you were in freeze mode, because your survival part of the brain now used all the blood flow to defend itself which means there wasn’t much left to access your neo-cortex (the logical part of the brain).

What can you do about it?

In order to stop yourself spiralling into fight, flight or freeze, the best reaction in this situation is to become curious about their perception of the situations that took place and why you were perceived by your manager in this way.

When you hear negative things said about you, naturally your brain will want to run away from this or defend itself.

The best thing to do is to listen to understand not listen to respond.

If you can’t think of anything to say, just say “please tell me more about…X”.

Ask deeper questions about their statements:

If they say: “you were patronising to John”.

Say: “I always like to improve and develop my skills so could you please tell me more about this: what did I say to John that was patronising?” (and genuinely listen to understand, don’t just pretend you are listening).

If they say: “when you said to him that he could take steps ABC. It wasn’t your place to tell him what to do. He is more experienced than you anyway.”

Become even more curious about specifics and say: “Was the fact that I offered him help patronising or were ABC steps I suggested he takes considered patronising?”

Ask questions to really, deeply understand why they perceived you in this way.

Everything they tell you is useful information. At worst, you can find out more about how they see the world, at best you can learn something new about yourself.

The biological reason you want to intentionally shift from JDE (justify, defend, explain — which is a defensive, survival attitude) to curiosity is because in the brain curiosity is linked to dopamine and learning. Curiosity has connections in the amygdala (the brain centre which triggers the fight, flight or freeze reaction) so you can biologically move to curiosity, but it is a shift in focus you have to intentionally move yourself towards. It’s not something that happens naturally, because naturally your brain feels threatened so the survival instincts of (fight, flight or freeze and JDE) kick in.

Next time someone criticises you, instead of justifying, defending or explaining, become curious and ask questions about the specifics which made them criticise you.



Adelina Chalmers a.k.a The Geek Whisperer

Helps Engineers who are Leaders (CEO/ CTO/ VP) get buy-in from their peers/teams/investors by transforming Communication techniques into Algorithms