Why Defensiveness is Your Worst Offense

Nov 7, 2013
5 Min Read

When I was new to the business world, I was very sensitive.  I was so insecure about whether or not I was doing a good job that I took constructive feedback badly.  Specifically, I would get defensive and respond as if I was being attacked, at any hint that my work, appearance, or conduct wasn’t absolutely perfect.  An example:

“Alex, your suits are nice, but sometimes they look a little wrinkly.  Do you think you could change before our meeting with the CEO?” said my boss.

“Are you kidding?  Do you have any idea how much I paid for this suit?  I’ve gotten 3 compliments on it already today,” said I.

I’m remembering this today because I am presently working with a 23-year-old who has the same issue.  When I gently suggested that she try a bit harder to collaborate with our other team members, she got red and flustered the way I once did, and nearly bit my head off with her response.  Her retort of choice was that no one else has ever given her that feedback, so it must not be true.

I beg to differ.  Of course it’s true, and I’m the only person who cares enough about this young woman to be honest.  If I’ve noticed it, everyone else has too, and if she doesn’t fix what are now two problems – her lack of collaboration and her defensiveness – she will never reach the level of success she desires.

No one does everything right all the time.  If you can’t accept criticism gracefully, your managers and colleagues will avoid giving it to you and you will never grow.  You may even become known as one of those people who is “difficult” to deal with or has a bad attitude, damaging your work relationships and reputation.

There is a right way and a wrong way to handle criticism, so here are some of my tried-and-true tips:

  1. Depersonalize the criticism: Repeat to yourself, “It’s a specific behavior that’s the problem, not me as a person.”
  2. Assertively restate the comments for clarification: Say to the person, “What I heard was that Behavior X is not acceptable.”
  3. Seek guidance: Ask the person, “How could I do that differently? What change would be appropriate?”
  4. Process the input:  After taking some time to think about it, ask yourself honestly, “Is this criticism valid? Am I willing to make the  change to eliminate the contention?”
  5. Review your progress/seek follow-up: Say to the person, “I’m working hard to bring about the change we talked about. Do you have any suggestions for what else I can do?”

Provided the criticism is meant to help you, be sensitive to what the other person is feeling. It was probably very hard for her to approach you, and you will score major points by trying to make her more comfortable.

Never, ever let your emotions get the best of you.  If the criticism really hurts and you don’t think you can control yourself, politely excuse yourself and resume the conversation once you’ve had a chance to calm down.  This may also buy you some valuable time for step four, or processing the input, before you decide on a plan of action.

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