It’s not easy to give critical feedback. Especially when the person on the receiving end gets defensive. Here are five common types of defensive responses. How many have you encountered (or perhaps even caught yourself engaging in)?

Deny or Argue Intent: Cause internal doubt for the person delivering the critical feedback.
Sounds like: “That’s crazy. I would never do that. You must be mistaken.”

Reverse the Blame: Turn the tables on the other person, making THEM the problem.
Sounds like: “Oh, as if you are perfect. You did the same thing last week.”

Make Excuses: Defend or legitimize the behavior or outcome in question as beyond your control.
Sounds like: “I did everything I could, but I didn’t have a way to reach you.”

Take Feedback to an Extreme: Build a false premise that makes the feedback seem unreasonable and untrue.
Sounds like: “OK, so you’re saying I’m guilty of not being perfect. But who is?”

Find an Exception: Formulate an argument based on the premise of “always” or “never.”
Sounds like: “You say I am always late, but I was on time yesterday.”

When someone is responding defensively the best strategy is to actively listen and seek to understand their point of view without necessarily agreeing. More specifically, here are a dozen quick tips to help you diffuse defensiveness and move conflictual moments forward.

  1. Take a breath and squelch the impulse to press your case in order to “win.”
  2. Avoid saying “Don’t take it personally”, or “Don’t be so defensive.”
  3. Try to understand why the other person’s brain interpreted your words as a threat.
  4. Ask open questions until you better understand their reaction and perspective.
  5. Respond to deflection by circling back to the original issue.
  6. Acknowledge strong emotions without judgment.
  7. Call for a break if necessary.
  8. Focus on the impact of their behavior, as opposed to motive, character, or competence.
  9. Let them know you assume their intentions are good.
  10. Allow for silence. Avoid the impulse to fill the void with “chatter”.
  11. Curtail your own emotional or defensive reactions. Breathe. Connect with your purpose.
  12. Check your ego and consider the validity of what the other party is saying.

When the walls of defensiveness go up, smart leaders and coaches listen, speak with candor, maintain balance, and demonstrate patience.

What strategies do you employ when others react defensively? Please share your suggestions in the comments below…

Image Credit: Calvin Ma on Unsplash

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