Months ago in this column I made a distinction between ingesting and digesting critical feedback. Ingesting is taking it in. Digesting is deciding what part is nutritious and what part is waste by-product.

I argued that these two activities are best separated because ingesting feedback often hurts and makes us want to reject it ALL as waste by-product:

“Look, I hear you, but you’re wrong about me. . . . ”

We’re better off saying, “Thank you, I’ll sleep on it,” and not drawing hasty conclusions. That way, we’re don’t risk appearing pigheaded—and losing precious insight.

We need to sleep on it because of a paradox. The more we crave the truth, the harder it is to get. The craving gets in the way. Someone casts doubt on you. You anxiously ask yourself who’s right, hoping you are. “I need the truth and it better be good,” isn’t likely to get you the truth. Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing, but longing for the truth gets in your way of getting the truth.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Feedback is inherently disorienting, and when we insist on a speedy recovery from the disorientation, we tend to reduce the quality of the resulting reorientation. The smart money is on just sitting with your molten, disoriented face, letting the input settle out before outputting much besides a queasy, “thank you.”

I believe we need a name for this admirable though uncomfortable waiting period between ingesting and digesting, and propose to call it “suspended animation.” The feedback animates you, filling you with resentment, defensiveness, discomfort, humiliation, retaliatory pride, the urge to counterattack, a dozen other emotions, and the animated transitions in between. But what you do is suspend all that until you calm down and you’re ready for the digestion process.

Suspended animation is useful not just for taking in feedback but for dealing with any possible affront, anytime you think someone is out to hurt you. We humans are instant storytellers. No sooner has something happened than we can explain it, though perhaps incorrectly. You feel a sting and instantly you know who did it and why, or at least you think you do. Acting on your instant explanation can make things worse.

Reacting to an attack has a Tar Baby quality to it. If, for example, someone gives you critical feedback that you’re too defensive to ingest, any action you take makes the accusation adhere to you, and the stronger the reaction the stronger the adhesion. If you say, “I am not defensive,” the feedback sticks to you. If you say, “You’re right,” the feedback sticks to you too. This double bind is very unsettling. And just looking unsettled also makes the feedback stick to you.

There are therefore many good reasons to stay cool—if not to turn the other cheek, at least to move very slowly toward retaliatory cheekiness.

Now, I’m not the first to counsel against rash retaliation. In the abstract, in a calm state of mind, we all heartily subscribe to such counsel. Trouble is, when you’re in the middle of being attacked or receiving critical feedback, such advice doesn’t tend to stick. When we most need to take that prudent advice is when it has the least chance of getting through.

I think this is due in part to the advice being about what not to do. The advice is don’t retaliate. It doesn’t tell you what to do instead with that very natural agitation that results when you’ve ingested what would be premature to digest.

I have some alternative advice that, for me, has worked a little better:

1. To name it is to tame it: Calling it suspended animation, or any name that suits you, tells you what you’re doing between ingesting and digesting. When an ally says, “He just insulted you. are you going to just sit there?!” You can say, “I’m not just sitting here. I’m very actively in suspended animation.”

2. Get a mascot and become it: A dog hit by a car probably says or feels its equivalent to “ouch.” But lying there in pain it doesn’t probably make up an instant story about what happened and why. Dogs probably don’t think, “That jerk was talking on his cell phone. He’s so self-absorbed he didn’t think of the consequences to me. Why as soon as I can, I’m going to bite his nuts. I’ll teach him a lesson.” It’s to a dog’s long-term disadvantage that it can’t craft such a complex narrative in its mind, but it’s not to its disadvantage in the moment of pain. In the moment of pain, it’s an advantage to just say ouch. When you’ve been hit, channel the dog for a little while. Say “ouch,” to yourself. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, instead of doing the instant story thing as though, in as much pain as you’re in, you could be a fair judge of the situation.

3. Have confidence in your ability to digest: Some of what makes us quick to retaliate or defend ourselves is a fear that if we don’t nip the challenge in the bud it will get out of hand, and that if we don’t nip it right away, maybe it’s because we really can’t. If we let the feedback in, for example, we’ll be powerless to reject it. It will infect us. Paradoxically, therefore the more confident you are in your ability to reject the feedback, the easier it is to wait to do it until tomorrow, after you have slept on it. In a state of suspended animation, channel the mafia boss who smiles warmly at the guy he suspects may be undermining him. Think to yourself, “I’ve got the power to drop this guy in his socks if I need to, but I’m a careful, cunning Don. I don’t stir up trouble, so first I have to watch. Time will tell what’s the best course of action.”

4. Be open to new possibilities: This one may sound positive but it’s mixed. Be open to the possibility that you’re a nicer person than you think you are, but also a nastier one. A little observation shows that those happy, healthy grooves we settle into can turn into ruts without our knowing it. People can change for the better or the worse—and be the last to know they have changed. I’m getting older. Older folks tend to be more stubborn, but they don’t tend to realize they’re getting stubborn. It’s not just them, it’s me, it’s us. So no matter how confident we are that we’ve acquired some rosy characteristic, it’s worth keeping a little dingy of self-doubt harbored nearby. I like the mantra that goes, “I wouldn’t put it past me,” or the one that says, “Whatever I scorn on him today, I’ll probably end up wearing sometime this year,” or alternatively, “No matter how hard I chase the truth, it will never catch me.”

5. Learn feedback’s patterns: We often take things personally that simply come inescapably with the territory of being alive. Feedback is fundamental to all adaptive processes from biological evolution to thermostats to taking a hint about your breath. Last week’s funnel article was all about feedback. Feedback is everywhere, and so its patterns are worth knowing by heart. Here’s an example of a particular pattern in person-to-person feedback: the first-out advantage. The first person to offer feedback appears more credible than the one who says, “well, since we’re sharing, I have some feedback for you too,” because the second to give it could just be retaliating. This first-out advantage is actually unfair. Just because someone gives feedback first, it doesn’t mean their feedback is necessarily more accurate. Keep that in mind when you’re struggling to stay in suspended animation. Don’t even try to give counterbalancing feedback. At least not today. If tomorrow it seems necessary you can always call on your inner Don and leave a pair of smoking socks to tell the tale.