Many people get defensive when getting feedback, creating a barrier to change. This simple change removes this impediment and makes feedback sessions more effective.
Feedback is typically not a fun process. For many people, myself included, it can be hard to receive critical feedback. I know that when I hear it, I get defensive. My gut reaction is to object, “But there’s a reason I did it that way!” As I’m getting the feedback, emotion cascades over my mind, making it hard to focus and stay rational. All my energy is channeled not into listening, but into trying to hold my tongue from saying something I’ll regret. I’m no longer paying attention which isn’t good for anyone involved in that feedback session.
Fortunately, there’s a simple technique that can help. This works for anyone who gets defensive when receiving feedback. It also works for people who are introverts, people who like time to reflect before responding, and other types of people who won’t do as well responding on the spot. In other words, when you show this to your boss (and for any manager reading this), it doesn’t mean that you (or the employee who shared this article with you) is necessarily defensive. It may be for any number of reasons, including this being helpful not just for him or herself, but for all the members of the team.
Feedback should be broken up into two sessions. In the first session, the manager or person giving feedback (as this works for peer or subordinate driven feedback as well) should provide the feedback. The recipient is only expected to listen, although has the option to ask clarifying questions. No objections or defenses, and absolutely no discussion.
If, like me, you’re defensive, your mind will be racing with emotions. Those emotions will fade over time. Write down your thoughts (but don’t share). Distract yourself with other work. Take the night to sleep on it. Reflect on it more tomorrow when you’re not as emotional in your response. Other folks may just want time to reflect, or to get input from others to get different perspectives.
The second phase should take place 1-3 days later. Now that your mind has had time to process (or calm down), you’re ready to have the discussion portion of the feedback. You can still ask clarifying questions. If you really feel that there’s a misunderstanding, you can now raise your objection (e.g., “Here’s why I thought that was why you wanted me to do it that way.”). You can also plan out next steps, if appropriate. Sometimes you may even find that once your mind has quieted you understand the feedback and don’t need the second session. That’s fine, too. What’s important is that you had the option to have the feedback discussion but at a time when your mind wasn’t on red alert.
Changing through feedback requires that you to listen, reflect, and work to change yourself. Under the best of circumstances, that isn’t easy. Emotional defensiveness only makes it harder. Using a simple technique like this helps to make it that much easier.
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