How to Avoid Defensiveness When Providing Feedback

, , ,

when feedback failsOne of the most difficult challenges we must deal with as leaders is the fact that some people would rather blame others for their results, rather than place at least part of the blame where it certainly belongs: with themselves. We even have a term for this: Defensiveness.

When I speak with leaders there is an almost universal agreement that this is one of the core challenges that they deal with on a daily basis.

Whether you are speaking with a family member, a peer, or an employee: we are providing feedback to help that person make progress. And yet often that ‘help’ is viewed negatively and discounted by the person we are seeking to assist. Too often they seem preoccupied with deflecting responsibility onto someone or something else.

The challenge that you must overcome when providing feedback to another person, is that your ideas (feedback) conflicts with the way they see the situation – even if they believe that you have their best interests in mind. Complicating matters, research shows that a majority of employees would actually trust a stranger more than their boss. Ouch – I know. I’m not saying that lack of trust is warranted or appropriate, however it could be true that your relationship with the person your are attempting to give feedback to is strained.

How the Brain Experiences Feedback

We tend to believe that since our feedback contains useful information, providing that information to another person it will accelerate their learning. Recent research shows that the opposite is true. There are at least two reasons for this:

The first reason for this is that we make a number of assumptions about the superiority of our understanding of the problem that the person is experiencing. We communicate this superiority through our lack of questions about how they see the problem. Whether or not you do understand their situation better than they do or not – that is not the issue. The issue is that you have cast yourself in a superior role and that is almost always going to cause a defensive reaction.

The second reason that feedback often does not accelerate learning is that when we are presented with a new idea – or at least one that conflicts with what we believe to be true, we have a choice to make. We can choose to learn from that idea or we can choose to attack that idea and defend what we know to be true.

But we cannot do both. At least not at the same time.

Now if we were to be honest, we would have to agree that it is hard to be open minded about ideas that conflict with what our experience has shown us to be true.  So our natural reaction is to defend our own perception of the ‘truth’.

When providing feedback to others, what we really want is for them to be open minded – in other words we want their mind to be open to the possibility that they could learn and that the idea may actually help them. Unfortunately, our process for getting them to change their minds is flawed.

Instead of opening their minds to the possibility that their understanding of what is happening is flawed, we instead encourage the very defensiveness that frustrates our ability to assist them in making a positive change. In other words, we try to argue people into changing their minds. Rarely does this work, so we up the ante and increase the volume and intensity of our dialogue. Even if this results in a temporary change in behavior – it is too often short lived, and the person reverts to their previous behavior pattern.

A Better Model For Feedback

So then how do we coach positive change in another person?

It is actually easier than you may think.

As a leader, we are often told to ‘walk the talk’ or ‘model that which we expect from others’.

Unfortunately, we tend to interpret this in the narrowest sense – we should arrive on time if we want others to do so, we should work hard if we want others too etc. While all of these habits are a great start – they are really just the price of admission to being able to ‘lead effectively’.

So what should we do?

The answer is to model the very behaviors we desire in those we seek to lead. So, if we want people to be in ‘learning’ mode rather than ‘defensive’ mode – we need to model that behavior ourselves.

Think of a time when you last experienced defensiveness from someone. Did you you model being in ‘learning’ mode? Or did you argue with them and attempt to convince them that your feedback would help them? Did you ask questions with a desire to understand their point of view, or did you ask questions with an eye to uncover where their logic was flawed?

The question is – are you in ‘learning’ mode when they you are interacting with the people you need to model the behavior for? That’s when it counts – they need to see you making an effort to learn (interpret this as understand) their perspective on a change you are seeking them to make.

Try this experiment next time you are faced with defensiveness from another person: Set aside the need to be right, and ask questions to understand their perspective. That does not mean they are right, and you should accept their answers as facts. However it does mean that you listen and really try to understand why they feel the way they do. You will find that the emotion in the dialogue decreases, they open up and you actually can have a conversation rather than an argument.

Consider this: When we are in ‘defensive’ mode we are almost always talking. When we are in ‘learning’ mode we are almost always listening. So, to model ‘learning’ behavior we must listen. Only then will you understand how the other person sees the issue.

So how about you: When you are seeking to change the behavior of another person do you do most of the talking – or most of the listening?

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *