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Conveying constructive criticism

December 28, 2017

What to Do When Feedback is Met With Defensiveness

By Erin Mahoney

Great Work!

It’s hard enough for many of us to summon the nerve to provide someone with constructive feedback. Ideally we’ve done some work preparing for the conversation: we’ve thought about a way to convey that we mean well from the start, we’ve identified the specific issue in question (rather than focusing on someone’s personality), and we know how to articulate our expectation for that person moving forward.

Therefore it’s particularly difficult when, despite our best laid plans, we encounter resistance, blame or outright denial that there is a problem. Below are some ways to effectively respond to specific types of defensiveness. However, the overall general formula for responding is three-fold:

Listen to the person’s objections thoroughly without arguing against them. If necessary, convey that you understand their point-of-view by restating the essence of their position or perception.
Validate and empathize with the emotions that accompany their position in order to diffuse the tension. Agree if they raise a legitimate point and reaffirm that you not interested in blame – rather you are just trying to find an effective way forward.
Redirect by restating the expectation and ask if they are willing to help you reach a solution. (Note: Do everything possible to avoid saying the word “but” between your validation and your redirection. It comes across as undoing the validation you just provided. Instead segue with the word “and.”)
Sometimes you may need to repeat these three steps as new objections are raised. However, it’s important to respond to each new point in a similar fashion.

Here are some common types of defensive responses you may encounter and some potential ways to reply:

Scenario: Two or more people in the office are not getting along or experiencing a breakdown in communication. When addressing the situation one-on-one with one of the individuals they put the bulk (or all) of the blame on the other person.

Response: It sounds like you think I’m taking sides or putting all the blame on you for the situation. I can see why it feels that way – after all you and I are the only ones here. I want to be clear that I’m not putting this all on you. And, at the same time, I think that in any communication breakdown or disagreement some responsibility lies on both sides. What I’d like is to discuss ways to improve communication moving forward. Can you help me with that?

Scenario: That person responds by saying it’s more the other person’s fault.

Response: Perhaps. We could probably talk all day about what percentage each person is responsible. I’d rather focus our time and energy on a solution rather than blame. How about you?

Scenario: That person says their behavior isn’t a big deal or that you or someone else is just being “too sensitive.”

Response: I understand that you didn’t mean any harm and why the same thing might not bother you. At the same time, everyone has different sensitivities regarding different things. There might be something that bothers you that doesn’t bother someone else. In either situation it’s important to try to adapt to the other person’s preferences since it’s essential to creating a respectful and effective workplace. Given that, would you be willing to try a different approach with so-and-so?

Granted, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard not to follow someone down the rabbit hole of blame, deflection and other tangents. Yet, if we can remember to genuinely listen, validate, and redirect back to the underlying issue we’re more likely to have a productive conversation.


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