The key to receiving feedback? Don't get defensive!


Julie was a creative, aggressive Marketing executive. I use the word “was” because she is out of a job again. Now, she is having limited success working on freelance projects. This is the third time in six years she has been “reorganized,” “outplaced,” or just plain fired. Her bitterness is growing--she seems to always blame her boss, her coworkers, or the company. But if Julie were truly honest with herself, she would have to admit she is defensive and resistant to feedback. If she had been able to hear what people tried to tell her, instead of justifying her actions and blaming others, she might still have a sterling career. 

I’m in the business of giving honest feedback. As an executive coach, I have to tell my clients things that others haven’t, or won’t tell them. Or, if they have told them, they don’t know how to help the person change their behavior. I love my work, because I know I can make a significant difference in their careers (and sometimes even their personal lives) if they are able to accept the feedback, and work with me to change the things getting in their way. 

And accepting the feedback is the first step. There are plenty of reasons people get defensive. For example, they may have had a very successful career up to this point and don’t see how their behavior could be hurting them now. Or, no one has told them the truth because they are in a position of power or in critical technical role and people fear the consequences. They may have been told their whole lives how great they are, which gives them an inflated view of themselves. Or, they may have had a tough upbringing, which caused them to build a protective wall around their ego to survive. 

Usually they give off defensive messages without even realizing it. The slightest suggestion makes them bristle, signaling to everyone, “Your feedback is not welcome here.” 

Here are some suggestions to help you accept messages you may not want to hear: 

Stop, Drop and Roll.

When you feel your defensive emotions rise to the surface, the next thing you are likely to do is justify your position. You hope that they will see the logic of your actions and agree that you did the right thing. The problem is that it usually does the opposite: it shuts down the conversation and convinces the messenger that you aren’t accepting their feedback. You owe it to yourself to listen and analyze what they say. Even if their perception is off, you need to know how your intentions were misunderstood. 

Instead, force yourself to Stop, Drop, and Roll. Stop justifying and listen. Drop into a questioning mode: “When did you see me do that?” “What did I say that upset you?” “What do you think I should have done differently?” Then Roll with what they tell you. Don’t beat yourself up or beat up the messenger. Realize they are trying to help you, even if their delivery wasn’t delicate. Reexamine what you’re doing and decide if you want to adjust it. 

The questions will draw out the other person and you are likely to hear more than they may have otherwise told you. When you Drop into a questioning mode I call that “sucking out the poison.” 

Suck Out the Poison.

This is particularly useful when someone is angry with you or is emotionally charged. Rather than becoming defensive, start asking questions (see Drop, above). Ask questions that keep probing, until the person has told you everything they can. At that point, the poison will be all out and they will be ready to discuss it more rationally. 

Alternatively, once they are done venting, you can ask, “What would you advise me to do differently?” Asking for assistance and advice is a great way to turn the conversation from a criticism into a constructive coaching dialogue. Even if you don’t fully accept their view, asking for advice positions you as coachable and open. And sometimes you can even explain how you did what they are suggesting, but to no avail, which gives them insight into why you did what you did. 

But if you shut them down by defending and justifying your actions, they may never try to help you again. Just ask Julie how it worked out for her. 

We take a comprehensive approach to executive coaching. We create a customized plan for each executive, based on the needs of the executive and his/her organization.  Call for more information about our executive coaching process at (800) 348-1944. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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