Comedian Patton Oswalt Just Showed the Emotionally Intelligent Way to Respond to Criticism

Last week, comedian Patton Oswalt donated $2,000 to cover the medical bills of a man who mocked him on social media. While the story is a refreshing example of compassion, the lesson it can teach entrepreneurs is powerful–even more so when contrasted with the response to Twitter criticism by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The key difference? Emotional intelligence

On January 23, Oswalt, who is an outspoken critic of President Trump, posted a colorful response to a tweet about a border wall from the president. Trump supporters pushed back–most notably Michael Beatty, a Vietnam veteran and Republican Alabama resident who criticized Oswalt’s tweet with equally acerbic intent.

Oswalt’s response was to look up Beatty in an attempt to better understand his perspective. He saw that Beatty was struggling with health care costs and was fundraising for medical treatment on GoFundMe. Oswalt donated to the campaign and encouraged his 4.46 million followers to do the same. The campaign has now raised over $47,000.

180-Degree Response

Let’s compare and contrast Oswalt’s response to his critic with a recent Twitter feud featuring Elon Musk. A few months ago, Musk and his team leapt into action to try to rescue a Thai soccer team with a specially built mini-submarine prototype. Musk was affronted by the comments of Vern Unsworth, a British cave explorer involved in the rescue. The diver had spoken ill of Musk’s efforts, suggesting they were a PR stunt. Musk tweeted a response, including a comment disparaging the diver. (Musk’s offensive tweet has since been removed, and Unsworth has sued him for defamation.)

Oswalt’s response lead to better outcomes: his critic, Beatty, is now a fan, calling for an increase in civil dialogue. Musk’s response lead to a lawsuit. So how do I make sense of this?

Oswalt’s response showed great emotional intelligence, a key for all entrepreneurs. Oswalt acted empathetically and genuinely  toward his critic, if not the criticism itself. Musk’s response, on the other hand, was visceral, originating from the reptilian part of his brain–the same part that makes us have knee-jerk reactions when attacked, as part of our fight-or-flight response. 

Both Oswalt’s and Musk’s reptilian brains would have seen the negative comments and be moved immediately to react. But Oswalt was able to overcome his instinct, while Musk was not. Author Daniel Goldman calls this phenomenon the Amygdala Hijack. A term he coined in his 1996 bestseller: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. According to Goldman, an Amygdala Hijack describes emotional responses which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus. Amygdala Hijacks are the knee jerk instantaneous reactions we as humans have to emotional threats. We act without thinking.

I have personally experienced the Amygdala Hijack, and I am sure you have too–when somebody cut you off in traffic, accidentally spilled a drink on you at a bar, or undermined you during a meeting. All of these situations can trigger an Amygdala Hijack and result in a knee-jerk reaction, one that you may later regret. But even if you feel justified in reacting, the fact remains the same: an explosive reaction won’t get you what you want, just as name-calling didn’t address the slight Musk felt at being criticized.

A cerebral reaction doesn’t come as naturally, but it is worth pursuing. I call this the 180-degree response: when you react in the complete opposite way to what your instincts want you to do. 

How to Apply the 180-Degree Response Approach

  1. Be mindful of your impulses. Observe when you feel your reptilian brain reacting, and acknowledge it. 
  2. Pause. Rarely does a small pause lead to worse results. If you’re writing an email or tweet, for example, pause before sending it. The next day, if you still feel it’s necessary, hit send. But more often than not, when the adrenaline subsides, your better nature (i.e., the rest of your brain) will catch up and opt for a better path. 
  3. Review your goals. Remind yourself what you are really trying to accomplish. Oswalt’s goal was not to annoy Beatty; that isn’t why he is on Twitter. Rather, his goal was likely to build a following by speaking his mind in an authentic manner. What response would further that goal?
  4. Appeal to the reptile. Our reptilian brain best understands binary messages: good or bad, fight or flight, pain or pleasure. So if you want to appeal to the reptilian brain, use a black-and-white message. Use the results of step 3 to remind yourself of the bigger picture before deciding how to respond. Remind yourself that turning potential enemies into allies is a higher calling (and way more valuable going forward) than simply responding to anger with anger. 
  5. Generate opposite options. When your reptilian brain is urging you to fight (or flee), ask yourself: what is the exact opposite reaction? When my wife annoys me, instead of expressing my anger, I buy her flowers. Instead of criticizing his detractor, Oswalt supported him. 

You may not be a beloved comedian like Oswalt or a billionaire entrepreneur like Musk, but we all face criticism and adversarial opinions. The next time you feel your reptilian response creeping in, try to generate a 180-degree response and do the opposite. The results might surprise you.