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Defensive Behavior – Expect It vs. Avoid It

Most of us avoid giving negative feedback defensive behaviorbecause we don’t want to deal with the recipient’s defensive behavior. We’re waiting for what I call, The Freak Out. The Freak Out is the predictable response to negative feedback.

Everyone wants to be seen as competent and adding value. When we give people negative feedback, we call those two things into question and the brain instinctively reacts. It’s as if you were driving down the road and the person in front of you slammed on their brakes. As an act of survival, you’d hit your brakes too. Becoming defensive when receiving negative feedback is the same instinctual response. We (almost) can’t help ourselves. So rather than dread and avoid others’ defensive behavior, expect it and have a plan.

Here are five ways to deal with defensive behavior:

  1. Plan your conversation by writing notes and bringing them to your conversation. I’m a fan of typed, double-spaced bullets that are easy to follow.
  2. Practice what you want to say out loud. What you say in your head is often different than what comes out of your mouth.
  3. Ask others for help. Change names and details to protect the feedback recipient and ask how someone else might deliver the feedback. Someone who is not emotionally involved will likely handle the conversation better.
  4. When the feedback recipient exhibits defensive behavior, take a breath and pause. Remember that you expected this. Don’t retract what you’ve said. Just let the person speak.
  5. Stay on track. Defensive behavior is designed to derail conversations. Keep the conversation focused on the feedback. Don’t become distracted.

What to say when people respond to feedback defensively:

Defensive behavior: “Why are you talking to me? I’m not the only one doing this.”

Appropriate response: “If others are doing this, be assured that I’m managing it. Right now we’re talking about you. I know this is difficult. Let’s stay focused.”

Defensive behavior: “You’re wrong. Everyone else thinks I’m awesome.”

Appropriate response: “I know this is difficult. I’m asking you to __________.  Please do that.”

Defensive behavior: “You don’t like me and you’re picking on me.”

Appropriate response: “I’m sorry you feel that way. The reason I’m asking you to ________ is _______.”

Defensive behavior: “I disagree.”

Appropriate response: “I know that we disagree. And I’m asking you to __________.”

The key is not to get baited by defensive behavior. This is why I suggest preparing and bringing notes. When I’m having a particularly difficult conversation and the other person becomes defensive, I often become flustered and either forget what I want to say or back pedal. Do neither. Expect defensive behavior. Don’t get distracted. Stay on track. You can handle anything someone says.

Defensive Behavior

About 

Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.

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3 Responses to “Defensive Behavior – Expect It vs. Avoid It”

  1. Amy says:

    What do you recommend should be done with feedback that is purposely doctored to fit a company-wide bell curve?

    • Shari Harley says:

      Hi Amy, Thanks for your comment on last week’s blog. Can you tell me more about your question? Are you seeing an annual rating altered because of the organization’s bell curve or actual anecdotal feedback being altered? I’ll try to help. T

  2. Karen L. says:

    Great and very helpful blog this week. I would just like to add that another “close cousin” to defensive behavior is when people talk over you in a conversation. It makes me incensed! I can’t tell you how many times I have told people to stop talking while I am talking and let us listen to what each other has to say. I say ” I’ll talk then you talk or vice versa but not at the same time”. I get so mad when people do this that I forget what I have said or plan to say and repeat myself or we ending yelling at each other and the conversation goes south from there. It is literally one of my pet peeves. Being defensive and talking over others accomplishes nothing in solving problems.

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