Learning from Feedback, Part 1: Developing Emotional Intelligence

The Common Response to Feedback


 It can be stressful to receive feedback, even when it is mostly positive.

It can be stressful to receive feedback, even when it is mostly positive.

Almost all of us have heard feedback like this at some point: “I think you did a great job, but…” Suddenly, it hardly matters that we “did a great job” – we’re just anxiously waiting to hear what will follow the “but.”

This anxious response to feedback is common. Therapist, Leon F Seltzer, Ph.D. suggests that “[t]he ability to take criticism in stride, it seems, is nearly universally elusive,” but emphasizes that “as common and understandable as this felt vulnerability may be, we hardly need to be subjugated by it indefinitely.”

This is encouraging news! By overcoming our instinctive fearful response, we can begin to learn from feedback rather than defend ourselves against it. We can develop a mindset in which it does not bother us, but rather gives us direction and encouragement for making improvements.

To develop this forward-thinking mindset, it is important to understand amygdala hijack and how this psychological phenomenon affects us when we become anxious.

What Is Amygdala Hijack?

 The human brain, shown from the side (left) and front (right), with the amygdala highlighted in red.

The human brain, shown from the side (left) and front (right), with the amygdala highlighted in red.

The human brain, shown from the side (left) and front (right), with the amygdala highlighted in red.

The amygdala is the part of our brain that serves as “the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation.” When we perceive a threat – physical or psychological – the amygdala “hijacks” our brain, overriding our rationality and making us respond emotionally.

Dr. Daniel Goleman – a world-renowned author, psychologist, and science journalist – explains that “emotions make us pay attention right now – this is important – and give us an immediate action plan without having to think twice.”

This “right now” response is what most of us experience when we hear feedback. We perceive a threat to our self-identity or self-worth, and thus want a solution now. Rather than listen to feedback and consider it rationally, we are inclined to either fight it or flee it. (For more on this phenomenon, see Fight or Flight).

According to Goleman, this emotional reaction is sudden and often seems inappropriate in hindsight. But, how can we overcome this response and act with reason rather than emotion?

This requires emotional intelligence.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Psychology Today explains emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” The difference between having higher and lower emotional intelligence lies in how we respond to our emotions.

People with higher emotional intelligence are aware of their emotions and can effectively manage them, while those with lower emotional intelligence are controlled by their emotions.

What does emotional intelligence look like in practice?


Goleman explains that “[t]he emotionally intelligent person is engaged, focused,
and attentive, and matches these skills to the situation.” Leaders who are emotionally intelligent can use traits like humor and empathy to “de-escalate conflict and help move toward a working consensus of how to handle the problem.”

The emotionally intelligent person is not excessively preoccupied with the past, present, or the future – they are able to thoughtfully reflect on the past, assess the needs of the present situation, and use this to work toward effective solutions for the future.

When we can effectively manage our emotions, it is easier to respond to feedback – even when it is given in a less than skillful way.

Would You Like to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence?

I have coached clients in-depth on this topic and am certified through Multi-Health Systems Inc. to administer and interpret the EQ-i 2.0 and EQ 360 Emotional Intelligence Assessments.

You don’t have to let your emotions override your rationality! As a certified Executive Coach, I can help you stay level-headed in demanding situations, so that you can confidently make rational, well-informed decisions when they matter most.

In Learning from Feedback, Part 2, we will discuss skillful ways to give feedback and the importance of developing a forward-thinking mindset.

For a free consultation on your goals and dreams, please call 805-965-8595