How To Give Feedback Without Making Other People Defensive

A person gets defensive when they feel their abilities, competence or overall persona is being attacked. This often results in them shifting the blame, criticizing or shutting down all communication. 

When the person you are giving your feedback to gets defensive it is hard to actually work on the issue at hand. This often leads to conflict instead of resolution.

While you are not responsible for other people’s reactions, the way you communicate can influence the course of the conversation. 

How to give feedback without making other people defensive

  • Lead by example – be aware of and admit your own failings. Own your mistakes and set the stage for other people to do the same. Reducing your defensiveness, reduces the defensiveness of the people you communicate with.
  • Always show respect – even when you disagree with someone’s word or actions. When a person feels respected and valued by you, it is less likely to feel personally attacked by your feedback. 
  • Use gentle language – “I” statements sound less aggressive and are harder to be perceived as personal attacks. Instead of “You are always yelling at me”, try using “I feel attacked when I am being yelled at”. 
  • Make a positive request – instead of telling the other person what you do not want, try telling them what you do want. The example above would sound like “I’d rather be talked with in a more moderate tone”. This shifts the focus from their persona to your need and is less likely to be perceived as a threat.
  • Be specific – avoid using “always”, “never” etc. “You always/never do…” sounds like nagging and will most likely make the other person feel like defending themselves. Reframe your feedback as a specific request – “Could you please do…”.
  • Show empathy – someone may get defensive even if you’ve done all in your power to present your feedback in a non-threatening way. Remember this has nothing to do with you. Defensiveness is a self-protective mechanism and stems from feelings of guilt, shame, fear. 
  • Stay calm – the person may react defensively by criticizing you, trying to shift the blame or withdrawing. Make sure you know how to not become defensive in return. Defuse the situation by finding something you can agree on and come back to the issue later, when you have both cooled your heads.

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