To grow and improve is a desire that most all of us share. Yet, in order to grow and improve we must first be willing to acknowledge our areas of weakness; we must accept who we are in order to become something better. So how can we best recognize our weaknesses? We can stop defending and start listening.
As Ken Blanchard declared, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Feedback is the quickest way to learn about our weaknesses and those areas we most need to improve. Knowing our weaknesses is the most important step in overcoming them. So, why then do people get defensive the moment they receive feedback that challenges or corrects them if that is the very thing needed for them to improve?
We have all heard the term “fight or flight” in describing what happens to someone when feeling physically threatened. When a person’s views, ideas, or behaviors are threatened, especially when they have put significant time, effort, or money into them, there is a similar response known as being “defensive”. Any suggestion whatsoever that conflicts with their idea or behavior can send a person into defensive mode. The person’s nervous system begins to overheat and their body becomes tense. In this state, they are unable to take in much new information as they become solely focused on defending their position.
There are many different defensive strategies used when a person is feeling challenged, criticized, or corrected: They will deny, make excuses, challenge, rationalize, explain, justify, blame, avoid, withdraw, or go on the attack (just to name a few). To a person on the defense, any new knowledge feels threatening and they are unable to see any side but their own. Learning and growth become impossible when a person is defensive.
Given that our desire is to grow and improve, and given that we cannot grow when we are defensive, it is imperative to take steps to avoid this response. The most important element in avoiding it is to listen. Our ability to form healthy relationships with others in business, whether it be coworkers, advisors, board members, managers, clients, etc, is a direct result of our ability to listen well.
Sometimes when hearing feedback, we must force ourselves to take a deep breath, or, if necessary, ask to be excused for a moment so you might step away and regain our composure. Then we can return with a clear head, ready to actively listen.
It is important to note that when we are feeling tired or stressed out we can react defensively without meaning to, so it’s important to stay self-aware of how our emotions may be influencing our reactions during these times.
Be careful not to expect everyone to see things exactly the same way you do. One of the best things about diversity of thought is that it helps us to view things from different perspectives, so welcome the opportunity to expand your horizons. If, while receiving feedback, you are feeling attacked, feel comfortable to express you are feeling that way in a calm and respectful tone. It may very well be that the other person isn’t even aware that their tone is causing you to feel threatened, and your expressing your feelings might help them be more sensitive with their approach.
As the other person is talking, look for areas you can agree with them. Finding these areas of common agreement will help both parties to feel collaborative rather than combative.
If you truly can’t find any points to agree with then ask for specific examples, not in an accusatory way, but in a way to show that you have a genuine desire to better understand their point of view by seeking examples that will help illustrate the problem more clearly for you.
Be quick to apologize when you should. Doing so shows a tremendous amount of maturity and respect for the other person. It shows that you are willing to be accountable for your behavior and it demonstrates that you can be trusted to take responsibility for your actions.
Stay on topic. Don’t use the conversation as a way to start bringing up your own grievances that are unrelated to the current discussion – that is a destructive tactic that only manipulates you into believing that you are superior to the other person and therefore don’t need to listen.
After hearing the other person out with an open mind, if you are still struggling with their point of view, simply thank them for sharing their views with you and let them know that you genuinely want to take time to ponder what they have said, stating that you will come back to them after you have given it more thought.
When someone is willing to take the time to give you constructive feedback, listen. Remember that truly confident people are able to listen respectfully to other perspectives, then to genuinely consider and evaluate if there is truth in what others are saying. They are able to do all of this without feeling that other perspectives are in any way diminishing their own. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to learn. If you want to improve, stop defending and start listening.