by Steve Adubato, PhD

A few months ago, I was working with an executive named Jane who was receiving feedback through an exercise in which a professional asks the following two questions of colleagues who know him or her best: What are my three greatest qualities as a leader and communicator? What are three specific areas where I can improve?

When done with an open mind and a spirit of wanting to get better, this exercise yields great results. However, in Jane’s case, she was resistant to the feedback.

Specifically, when Jane’s executive assistant, Mary, said she could be condescending when communicating directives or dealing with mistakes, Jane’s response was; “Yes, but the problem with Mary is that I have to tell her the same thing 100 times before she gets it right.” Jane was being defensive, so instead of receiving this valuable feedback and using it to find ways to improve the way she communicates with Mary, she wanted me to understand that she had a perfectly good explanation for communicating in this fashion.

As we proceeded through the results of her assessment, Jane continued to defend herself against any negative feedback until I finally asked her this question; “Jane, if this is how others perceive your communication, what’s the downside to accepting it from your colleague’s perspective and trying to find a better way of getting your message across?” At that point, she just stared at me and it was clear that Jane had been stuck in defensive communication-mode for a very long time.

Jane is not alone. All of us have engaged in defensive communication, but when we do, nothing good happens. So why not consider this more constructive (and yes, more challenging) approach the next time you receive feedback that’s less than glowing:

  • People often say go with your first instinct. That may be true in some professional arenas, but when it comes to this type of communication, it is often bad advice. Many times, your first instinct is to be defensive, because defending ourselves is natural. Rather, take a breath and fight that urge to fight back. Instead of saying, “What you don’t understand is,” you could say, “Tell me more about what happens when I speak to you in that tone.” Asking this question allows you to listen to the impact your communication has on others.
  • Go into “solution mode.” Ask yourself what are you really trying to accomplish here? Is it to win an argument or to explain why you are doing something? Or, is it to get to a better place with someone who matters in your professional and personal life? Being solution-oriented will change everything about the way you communicate. It will cause you to say things like; “Mary, what about if I were to ...” The idea is to propose to Mary a different style of communication to gauge how she would react to it.
  • Consider that your approach may not be the only or best one. Accept that you are not perfect and that the other person giving you feedback has a perspective that can genuinely benefit you. Looking at things from the other person’s point of view is one of the most valuable communication tools and will cause you to be less defensive.

Of course all of this is easier said than done and, in the heat of the moment, sometimes difficult to execute. But if you decide that engaging in defensive communication hasn’t been productive so far, why not try a different approach? What do you have to lose other than lots of unnecessary frustration and anxiety?