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Dealing With Negative Feedback Reactions

Feedback should be given regularly, as opposed to being only a one-time, annual event. This requires that managers and leaders step up and learn how to give effective feedback.

One of the most common questions I hear is, “How do I deliver improvement feedback that will motivate and inspire better performance, rather than trigger defensiveness—or, god forbid, tears?

This article shares a simple model developed to help deal with defensiveness, should it arise.

Why People Get Defensive

One of the biggest impediments to giving improvement feedback is the desire to avoid conflict—or, more specifically, fearing how the other person will react and feeling ill-equipped to handle any defensive or emotional reactions.

Receiving feedback is an emotional process; one that may cause feelings of embarrassment, shame, anger—or possibly pride, elation or relief. In addition, the feedback we give may or may not be consistent with how the other person sees himself and this can trigger some very primal reactions.

The bottom line is that people get defensive because they don’t feel safe.

Fight, Flight and Tears

Sometimes, despite our best intentions (and improved skill!) in giving feedback, the other person still gets defensive. This can show up in a variety of ways.

“Fight” responses include combativeness, argumentativeness, deflection, blaming, and the like. “Flight” responses may involve the person actually leaving the room or shutting down and getting very quiet. And of course, there is always the potential for tears.

When there are any of these reactions to feedback, the biggest mistake people make is that they continue delivering the feedback, or worse, they start to get equally defensive about the feedback, and keep pushing their message. This will get you nowhere, and can even make the situation worse, creating frustration on both sides.

Pause the Feedback Conversation

The key to dealing with defensiveness (or other emotional reactions) is to push the ‘pause’ button on the feedback conversation and deal with the reaction. Think of approaching this part of the conversation in a way that is curious, compassionate and detached.

  • Curious: I’m curious in that I want to understand what is going on for the other person.

  • Compassionate: I’m compassionate in that I care about and have empathy for what the other person is experiencing or feeling.

  • Detached: Finally, I am detached—not in the sense that I don’t care—but in the sense that I am not going to get caught up in the other person’s defensiveness and become equally defensive about the feedback.

Diffuse Defensiveness with the HEAR Model

The HEAR model is an effective way to deal with defensiveness or other emotional reactions. It involves the following steps:

Hear and articulate the reaction in a non-judgemental way.

I notice you’ve gotten quiet.

You seem to have some strong emotions around this.

Explore what is driving the reaction using neutral language

What are you thinking right now?

What’s your reaction about?

Acknowledge and validate what you heard the person say

It sounds like this feedback doesn’t seem fair to you, given how hard you’ve been working. I can imagine that this must be frustrating.

Refocus the individual on what’s true about the feedback and what they can learn from it and do about it

What about the feedback do you agree with?

What can you do to address these perceptions?

Note: There might be some iteration between the Explore and Acknowledge steps.

Once you have sufficiently explored the other person’s reaction and acknowledged what is being said (which doesn’t mean you need to agree with it), look for signs that safety has been restored to the conversation.

Has the tension or defensiveness been diffused?

If so, then you can refocus on the feedback.

Take a look at 'HEAR' in action

Conclusion: You've got to do it

Step into feedback conversations—especially the really tough ones.

Feedback requires both thought and preparation. Sometimes, it is the really tough conversations that help us build the relationship, creating mutual trust and understanding. With this trust and understanding, future challenges become much easier to discuss and address.

Don’t let the potential for defensiveness stop you from delivering the feedback. At the end of the day, you can only do your best—you can’t be responsible for other people’s reactions.

Want a guide to HEAR? Click HERE

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