How to Not Be Defensive

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Harvard Business Review Ascend

We’ve all received feedback that has stung or embarrassed us, making us feel defensive. And it’s normal to feel defensive. The amygdala, which is the part of the brain that constantly scans our environment for threats, cannot tell the difference between a psychological threat and a physical threat. Essentially, we get defensive because we don’t feel safe. Yet, the last thing we want to do is to respond defensively when we’re receiving negative feedback.

Here are 6 strategies to manage your defensive impulses:

1. Know your triggers and anticipate them

Understanding what your personal triggers are—and where (and with whom) they might pop up—allows you to prepare proper responses if you do get triggered during a difficult conversation. For example, if you know that you tend to shut down or lash out when you feel bullied or treated unfairly, you might make a plan to take a few deep breaths to stay calm when you’ve been triggered, allowing you to stay present in the conversation. 

2. Give it a name

If you do have a reaction to negative feedback, try to notice in the moment what you are feeling. Start by recognizing your bodily sensations (e.g., feeling your blood pressure rise, getting tense in your limbs, sweating, etc.). This recognition of a physical response can help slow things down, signaling you to pause and choose your response more thoughtfully, versus reacting automatically in a way that is unproductive or regrettable. Go a step further to name the emotion you are feeling (even if only for yourself). This can create the emotional awareness that can prompt reflection and better self-management. If you feel safe enough, share what you are feeling with the other person—whether that’s angry, irritated, stunned, or something else. This can create awareness for the other person to restore a sense of safety to the conversation.

3. Assume good intentions

Many people are unskilled at delivering difficult feedback and may not clearly express their positive intentions in sharing the feedback. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they mean well. Imagine they have your best interest at heart and want to see you be successful. Or recognize another shared goal that you both want to achieve, like making the client happy or launching your company’s product on time, as the other person’s likely goal in giving you the feedback. This will allow you to see them more as a caring collaborator versus an adversary and help defuse any tension you may feel.

4. Don’t take it personally

Improvement feedback can feel particularly threatening when we take it personally and interpret it as an assertion that we must not be as good or as smart we thought. Instead, we can frame it as a helpful conversation that highlights our behaviors (and the resulting less-than-desired impact) that can be changed or improved. Psychologist Martin Seligman identifies personalization (that is, “relating to the level of personal control an individual feels they hold relating to an outcome”) as a pessimistic way that we explain failures or setbacks to ourselves. Personalizing feedback—feeling like “I’m the reason this failed”—makes us less resilient than when we are able to acknowledge external factors that may have contributed to the situation. For example, your presentation may not have gone well because your time got cut in half, not because you are “just not a good presenter.” 

5. Adopt a growth mindset

As psychologist Carol S. Dweck describes in her book Mindset, people with a growth mindset are fundamentally curious and seek learning opportunities, even if that means failing or looking bad. They see mistakes and failures as not only inevitable, but precisely how we learn and grow—and that our abilities aren’t fixed but can improve over time with effort. Make a conscious choice to see difficult feedback as a learning opportunity and get curious about it—even (and perhaps, especially) if you don’t agree with the negative feedback. Ask questions like, “When you say I went into too much detail, where do you think I could have been more concise in my presentation?” or “What could I do differently next time to connect better with my audience and not seem so rushed?”

6. Exercise self-compassion

Show yourself the same kindness, care, and concern you would show a friend or loved one and recognize that we are all imperfect human beings who make mistakes. Self-compassion helps to shift the focus of the brain from its default survival responses that can trigger defensiveness to a more open, receptive state, allowing you to better manage any reactive tendencies. Being more forgiving of yourself is also an antidote to the unproductive cycle of rumination that can sometimes follow a negative feedback experience and helps build resilience.

While it’s normal to feel defensive, you don’t have to respond defensively to difficult feedback. Employing any or all of the above strategies can help you manage your emotions effectively, so you can stay in the conversation and learn from the feedback.



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