Don’t Get Defensive


“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV).

Or rather we could sharpen each other—if we were just willing to listen.

Is it hard for you to hear feedback? Most of us would like to say that it’s not. After all, each of us wants to be the type of person who humbly and honorably receives and responds to feedback. But the truth is most of us aren’t. I welcome feedback, we think, when it’s valid. Or when it comes from someone I respect. Or when it’s delivered appropriately.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 7.39.01 AMWe avoid seeking feedback because it makes us uncomfortable, and we disregard most of what we do hear (which, incidentally, is often poorly delivered). As a society, we are bad at giving feedback, and we’re even worse at receiving it. But without feedback it’s hard to know where you stand at work or in a relationship. You’re essentially flying blind.

There must be a better way.

Sheila Heen, coauthor of Thanks For the Feedback, would like to change that. Speaking at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit, Heen identified the incredible value of feedback and encouraged Christian leaders to reevaluate their approach to giving and receiving it.

Most approaches to improving workplace feedback focus on quality and messaging. The emphasis is on providing managers better resources for evaluating performance and better skills for communicating the results of the evaluation. Both are good and necessary, but there’s room for improvement on the other side of the equation too, and that’s a side we can each do something about.

gearsgrayscaleHeen and her fellow researcher Douglas Stone found that our brains reflexively filter out most of the feedback we hear. It’s true that not all feedback is equally valuable, but to get to that iron-sharpens-iron place, we must be able to hear and evaluate feedback fairly. We can improve those skills by understanding and taking into account the needs and emotions that get in the way.

While Heen’s research focuses primarily on the workplace, the results apply to other contexts as well. Some of the hardest feedback for me to hear comes from my kids or Christian friends. Yet if we want to grow in our faith, work, and relationships, we must learn to hear and respond to feedback, even when it’s poorly delivered, comes from unwelcome sources, or seems unfair.

To do that, you must be able to identify and process your brain’s default reactions to hearing information about yourself.

Know the Triggers

At a basic level, humans need to both grow and be appreciated just as they are. When dealing with feedback, those two needs often come into direct conflict. As we receive feedback we automatically go into protective mode, searching for triggers that might discredit the potentially uncomfortable things we’re hearing. Interestingly, this holds true whether feedback is positive or negative. Sometimes positive feedback can be hard to hear as well. Heen and Stone identify several triggers we need to be aware of:

The Truth Trigger. Our first response is to focus on the actual content of the feedback. Does any part of it strike you as off base or unfair? If so, you feel entitled to ignore it. But there can be valuable truth hidden behind one or two unfair jabs.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 9.15.59 AMThe Relational Trigger. What is the relationship between you and the person offering feedback? Is the person a trusted mentor? A competitor? Your angry teenage son? Your relationship to the giver of the feedback colors how you interpret it (or whether you consider it at all). As with the truth assessment, your instinct here may be totally correct but still do you a disservice by causing you to discredit potentially valuable information that you would receive well from another source.

The Identity Triggers. Try to examine your personal sense of identity and how it is affected by the feedback. How do you define yourself and draw confidence? If feedback—however valid—hits at your core identity, it can feel crushing, activating strong defensive reactions.

When feedback trips a truth, relational, or identity trigger, we tend to discount it, fight it, or simply withdraw from it. A better response is to understand where the other person is coming from and to try on, or experiment with, their assessment in a dispassionate way.

That is easier said than done when your very first corporate boss tells you that your approach to teamwork is demoralizing and disrespectful to your coworkers (yes, this happened to me), or when your teenage kids, for whom you’ve made endless sacrifices, shout that you are the “worst mom ever.”

Knowing what triggers are affecting your response can help you to get past instinctual denial or defensiveness. From there, you can evaluate feedback in a more constructive way.

Take the time to listen.

Several years ago my daughter Annie confronted me over my failure to listen to her when she was talking about something important to her. She said it felt as if I didn’t care. My gut reaction was to fight: “Of course I care, but we’ve been talking for a long time and you’ve been repeating yourself. I just took one second to glance at an email . . .”

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 10.49.19 AMI immediately realized that response would get us nowhere. Regardless of how I actually felt about Annie, my listening habits made her feel uncared for. I needed to make some changes. In order to get to that truth, I had to push past my instinctual response. For me it was partly a pride issue.

Christians are called to seek and meditate on truth (Philippians 4:8), even truth that may be hard to hear. We have the freedom to do that because we don’t have to be fearful of or constrained by the feedback the world offers. God offers us an identity in him that cannot be threatened by employee evaluations or criticism from family members.

Open yourself up.

“For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8–9).

The next time you encounter feedback that makes you uncomfortable, offer a quick prayer and realign your heart and mind. Then step out as a child of light, secure in your foundation, and open yourself to truth and growth.


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