5 (+3) Feedback Tips For Dealing With Defensiveness

What do you do when you receive complaints about someone’s performance, they’re known to be defensive and it seems even though you’ve waited (and hoped the issue would just resolve itself), the issue is still there?

Wait longer and hope harder?

First off, there isn’t any miracle way for dealing with defensiveness.

While it’s doubtful a defensive person is going to stop in their tracks and thank you profusely for your feedback, you can still have an impact.


All you’re looking to do is point out their behaviour and hope what you say, is spoken and received with openness and helps to improve their practice or performance.

While that sounds like a pretty simple goal, these 5 tips will help ensure you get the outcome you’re looking for. Sound good?

Feedback Tips

1.    Focus on Behaviour

This means, don’t call the person names (I know you know that!) and don’t refer to them by that 4-letter word … jerk or lazy!

Instead focus on the behaviour you want changed. i.e. “I notice the sterile technique you are using doesn’t seem to meet the standards for our area,” or “I notice when you get busy, your tone of voice changes and sounds more aggressive than I think you intend it to mean.”

2.    Give One Example

There’s a tendency for some leaders to gather several examples of the undesirable behaviour that needs changing and then speak to the person about all of these instances. Do you really think hearing a laundry list of undesirable examples is going to feel like a bed of rose petals? It’s too overwhelming so …

Don’t save up examples!

Instead give one example of the behaviour that needs changing. If you have a laundry list, you can say, “I’ve noticed a pattern of behaviour.” And then you give One example. If the person asks for other examples, then you have permission to share other examples with them.

3.    Focus on What You Want

There’s a body of knowledge that says the brain can’t process a negative. That means when you say, ‘Don’t interrupt me,’ the brain hears ‘interrupt me.’ It’s the same philosophy as ‘you get more of what you pay attention to’ or ‘energy goes where attention flows.’

In terms of feedback it means this: Share what you want the person to do – not what you don’t want them to do. For example, “Please let me finish speaking before you respond” as opposed to “don’t interrupt me.”

Simple? Yes!

Easy to do? Ummm, keep practicing!

4.    Engage in Dialogue

I know defensive people can make it difficult to give feedback. It’s usually because it’s difficult for them to hear they need to improve in some area. One way to mitigate that is to give them an opportunity to share their perspective.

Invite them into the conversation – don’t make feedback a monologue. No-one likes to be told what to do. Instead make it a dialogue. A dialogue doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. It also doesn’t mean what you said doesn’t count. It’s simply the easiest way to hear their perspective!

5.    Ask Questions

Many times people enter into a feedback conversation thinking they have all the information and answers. Not a good starting place. When it comes to giving feedback to someone who may be defensive, you have to become a journalist. That means, you ask questions:

·      What happened?

·      How did that happen?

·      How can you prevent that outcome in the future?

·      What do you need from me to resolve this?

·      Get it? (that’s not one of the journalist questions!)


Avoid ‘Why’ questions. Why? ‘Why’ questions get at the person’s motivation. Many times people do not know why they say or do certain things. That’s why people get defensive with ‘why’ questions. (there’s an awful lot of ‘whys’ in that short paragraph!)


People are also more open to feedback (and less defensive) when they see you are also open to feedback (again making feedback a two-way street). Here are 3 questions I’ve found really beneficial for getting feedback.

3 Q’s for Getting Feedback

1.    What do you want me to keep doing?

2.    What do you want me to do more of?

3.    What do you want me to stop doing?

Give them a try and let me know how they work for you.

Happy Feedbacking!

Learn, Laugh Share

Barb Langlois RN, BSN, MSN





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