Defensive Behavior – Expect It vs. Avoid It
Most of us avoid giving negative feedback because 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:
- 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.
- Practice what you want to say out loud. What you say in your head is often different than what comes out of your mouth.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, I promise you that I’m managing it. Right now we’re talking about you. I know this is difficult. Let’s stay here.”
Defensive behavior: “You’re wrong. Everyone else has given me positive feedback.”
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.