Think back to a moment when you got some unexpected feedback and it did not feel good.
Was it an email? Was it a comment on a document you wrote? A Slack message? Or maybe it was face to face. During a 1-on-1, or performance review.
How exactly did you feel in that instant? Ashamed? Angry? Frustrated? Anxious?
"How dare this person say this? They have no idea what they're talking about."
Congratulations. Your amygdala took over. It's not your fault. It's your programming. We all go through this loop over and over.
The question is: what are you going to do about it?
The reason I ask is because what you do next is the difference between a constructive conversation, or a headache. Between a learning experience, or a waste of time. But what you can do next depends on a number of factors, all of them intrinsic to you. They are skills you can learn and develop.
In case you're wondering, your amygdalae are two tiny almond-shaped structures embedded deep in your brain. Old hardware that goes way back in our evolution. It regulates our immediate emotional responses, such as fear, anxiety, and aggression. Can't get rid of it. But before you start hating it, you should know that it is also responsible for you instinctively laughing or feeling great about something. Oh, and it keeps you alive.
As an example, the other day I asked for feedback about a blog post I was drafting. Some of what I got back triggered me. Why were they nitpicking? But after taking a deep breath, I was able to make the space in my mind to give the comments a fair shake. The blog post was better for it.
Because you're so often in these spots, any improvement in how you deal with them compounds. If you get consumed by anger or frustration, that compounds too. And because, last I checked, you cannot control others, you're stuck with having to control yourself.
So how do you get better at this? How do you wage war on your amygdala and do the right thing in those instants? There are at least three things you can do.
1. Don't run away from feedback, run toward it.
The best way to get good at something is to do it all the time. If you don't go through difficult feedback, you'll never improve at handling it. Every time you go through it and successfully catch yourself, you're training your amygdala. And by exposing yourself to the discomfort, you'll get more resilient when life bestows discomfort upon you. Less fragile, more antifragile.
In fact, you should take it up a notch. Actively seek contrarian opinions from believable people. Engage in thoughtful disagreement. Real growth comes not from success and validation but from challenging our views and putting up a strong guard against confirmation bias. This is hard. But you'll be much less likely to show up as an entitled know-it-all and get the respect of your peers instead.
2. Retrospect and reflect.
If you go about your days on auto-pilot, you're missing out. Keep a short daily, ongoing log of your activities, with brief "stream of consciousness" type comments. Got out of a meeting where you felt your emotions got the better of you? Write it down. Wrote to someone on Slack in a way you regret? Log it. This will enable you to debug your mind later on.
Reflecting back on what you did, how you did it and how you felt doing it leads to invaluable insight. More often than not, there are hidden patterns to our moods and behaviors. Developing a daily, or weekly, reflection practice gives you the possibility to expose them. And with that the ability to course-correct.
3. Be present. Be mindful.
In his classic book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman models the emotional and the rational sides of the brain as two systems. System 1 is fast, automatic, and impulsive. System 2 is conscious, deliberate, and thoughtful. When we get in trouble, it's usually because we let System 1 stay in charge. The trick is to weaken the connection between emotion and action. Acknowledge System 1's response to the situation, but create just enough space for System 2 to come online.
If the endgame of meditation and mindfulness in general is witnessing, practicing it helps us develop the ability to open that gap between feeling and action by simply noticing it. Time sort of slows down, Neo-like. Being present on the here and now puts us in a better position to react positively come whatever may.
In a nutshell: life is a single-player game unfolding inside your mind. Change yourself, before you attempt to change others, and you won't have to.