How does criticism hit your brain?

Everybody loves a critic, right?  How do you give feedback to somebody and be effective, i.e. without your message getting deflected on their “shield”?


An area I found especially hard to deliver constructive feedback is presentation / public speaking skills.  Criticizing the way somebody speaks or organizes his / her thoughts often hits very close to home.

My experience is that getting feedback on presentations I do is though too.  Believe me:  it’s not because of lack of material as I’m very far from perfection!  Some people can’t articulate what you do wrong, most do not dare in fear of offending you.

Last week I witnessed a colleague giving feedback on somebody’s presentation.  I found him especially effective…  but I didn’t quite understand why.  He was positive and uplifting while still suggesting ways to improve.  Beyond that I couldn’t see how I could replicate.  The following day I read an article from Fast Company discussing criticism that explained exactly what my colleague was doing right.  So I thought I would share it here:  Why Criticism Is So Tough To Swallow (And How To Make It Go Down Easier) by Caroline Webb.

Form & Content

There are two parts about delivering criticism:

The second part requires experience in order to go beyond trivialities (e.g. we couldn’t hear you).  Unless you have a job where you are presenting & seeing colleagues present all the time, you won’t get experience quickly.  If that’s your case, I would suggest joining public speaking clubs (e.g. Toastmasters).

The Sandwich


The author mentions the good old praise sandwich.  If you aren’t familiar with the meal, let me get you two introduced.

Basically, it’s a ham sandwich where you replace the bread by praise and the ham by improvement suggestions (criticism).

I’ve been handed my fair share of that sandwich and I did cook a few myself.

Nothing could go wrong, right?  You manage the feelings of the other person by throwing praises for intro & conclusion, keeping the negative in the middle.

It is actually a good way to structure feedback.  The problem she points out is that many people keep the praise generic and the criticism specific.

The example she gave hit me because I’ve done a very similar one recently:  “your speech was great, I would do X differently, would improve Y this way and would consider doing Z, otherwise, fantastic speech!”

Why is this so ineffective?

Criticisms = Threat

pexels-photo-68421[1]Your ancestors were hunted by big animals.  They survived.

Why?  Because they were very alert about threats around them.  So alert that those threats were registering at an unconscious level, even when they were not looking for it.

They passed their genes to you, so your brain is constantly on the lookout for threats.  There are no wolves around anymore so it settles for other threats…  like criticism.

This is why we are very sensitive to criticism.  Criticism, socially, is dangerous.

By making criticism specific, a feedback raises the level of stress of the person you are delivering the feedback to.  They become defensive.  They stop listening.

Praises need to be concrete to be efficient

We love praises.  Praises are social rewards.  That’s good.

What we love even better is specific praises.

Our brain responds better to concrete ideas than abstract ones, despite all the linear algebra we did in college.

So when we say something like “you’re great but your vocabulary is repetitive”, the threat takes over the generic praise.

A better way to give feedback

So the better way the author suggests is:

Basically, you amplify your praise and you downplay your criticism, but in form, not in content

Actually, you don’t criticize, you suggest improvement on what’s already there.  It isn’t political correctness like calling a massive layoff “right sizing”.  The goal is different:  you don’t underline what’s missing, you suggest what could be done to make the whole better.


I really encourage you to read the original article.  It is a good read.

SAMSUNG CSCNow, something I would add is to go easy on criticism.  The truth of the matter is that people change very slowly.  So if you hit them with 8 criticisms, beside having them crying in fetal position in their shower, you won’t accomplish much.  It’s a long term game.  You give a few pointers at a time for them to improve a little at the time.

I took a badminton class when I was at the university and one day the teacher came in with a video camera.  He said something very wise, in the line of:

“A camera is a powerful tool to analyze the style of a player and it is used more and more in sports.  You have to be careful though.  A camera sees everything and you can destroy an athlete with it.”

When you look at somebody’s performance, be it a presentation or any kind of work that they do, you are the camera.  Be lenient.

But do give feedback.  Because you likely see something the other person doesn’t see.  Delivered appropriately, feedback is gift!

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