Has anyone ever given you feedback that you were too defensive?
When I was a teenager, I often heard my dad say, “You’re being defensive.” This usually happened when he had tried to correct me or give me advice, and I usually responded by starting a huge argument.
The truth is, defensiveness short circuits the communication process. And like my teenage behavior, it often starts arguments. But there are three questions that will absolutely crush defensiveness. Use them, and people will stop saying that you are defensive. Coach your employees to use them, and you will open up a new channel for giving and receiving feedback.
#1 Would you tell me more?
This is an advanced ninja mind-blower. When someone voices a criticism or complaint, they are probably expecting you to fire back or at least offer an explanation. Instead, you invite them keep going.
Try saying it like this, “It sounds like this is important to you. Would you tell me more?” This question may surprise the other person and invite them to reconsider their opinion of you. It will also signal that you are not personally threatened by their critique, and they may be able to tone down their language and give you a better explanation of their objection.
#2 How do you wish I had handled this?
Your follow up question turns the complaint from negative to positive. Instead of continuing to rail on you, they now have to think positively about what they wanted to happen. You have still not uttered a word of self-defense, which is impressive and has taken a lot of the heat out of their complaint.
#3 Would it be alright if I thought about what you’ve said and get back to you with a response?
Up to this point, you have been completely withholding your own response. You may be seething inside, but you have not pushed back at all. You have given them space to speak, asked follow-up questions to draw out what they felt and wanted, and demonstrated that you are a concerned listener. By asking permission to think it through, you have honored them and also brought their complaint to a close.
I call these three questions powerful because they accomplish several important things all at once.
First, you undermine and defeat any charge of defensiveness.
Second, you win points for being a good listener who is more concerned about hearing them out than proving a point or giving your side.
Third, you buy time and space to think about how you want to respond.
Process Criticism Before Responding
You may initially feel anger or unfairness over the criticism, but now you have time to process before answering. There may be some truth to the critique that you are able to see when you reflect in private. Even if you come back and disagree with the criticism, you will probably handle it much better after thinking it through.Finally, asking these questions does not require you to admit to anything or accept their criticism at all. You listened, but you did not have to agree in the moment.
Whoever is asking the questions is directing the conversation. By asking instead of telling, you take the wheel and avoid the feeling of powerlessness that may come when someone is criticizing you.
When people have criticized you in the past for being defensive, what responses have you found helpful? If you had an employee who was overly defensive, how were you able to help them be more open to feedback?