We’ve written a lot about feedback and how to be prepared that most of the time the person hearing the feedback — either inwardly or outwardly — will be defensive, maybe even very defensive. And that defensiveness can really affect the usefulness of the conversation.
But what if you’re on the other side of the desk, not giving the feedback but getting it? How can you put your defensiveness in a box to listen better, and allow yourself to grow?

Before the Meeting

If you’re only expecting to hear incredible accolades in your feedback meeting, it might be helpful to mentally prepare that it will likely be more balanced than that. Getting feedback at work that there’s nothing that you could do to be more effective is pretty rare. If you’re like most of us, there’s always room for development – which means you’ll probably hear about areas where you need to improve. Accepting that before your meeting, and managing the stress and anxiety that might come with that message, is important. To start with a realistic perspective, take some time before the meeting to ask yourself where you believe that you could be more effective. Then, take some time to meditate, reflect, or build yourself up by making a list of the things you do feel really confident about.
Remind yourself that any critical feedback that comes is because the people you work with typically want you to do better, and believe you can. They have faith in you and see your value. On the off-chance that you’re having this review session with someone who doesn’t care about you or have your best interests in mind, schedule an additional meeting with someone who does care to debrief (without going over your manager’s head or playing politics). The best kind of person to debrief with is someone who can say to you, “It sounds like your boss hit a nerve with this feedback, but they’re not entirely off base…”
Also, maybe don’t have that second cup of coffee right beforehand, or switch to decaf. No need to add jitters (or the need to pee) to your meeting.
Lastly, build your schedule around it to the extent you can. On the chance (read: pretty good chance) you’ll hear something that doesn’t make you feel on top of the world, and you think that this will throw you off a bit, you’re not going to want to have to present at a meeting right after. Scheduling a buffer into your day is a great way to be able to reflect on what you hear and think about your next steps.

During the Meeting

One of the difficulties with getting defensive over some harsh or unexpected feedback is that it’s often a gut reaction – something we seemingly have no control over, like a gag reflex. That’s why you should not react immediately, and definitely do not interrupt your manager. Let them finish, and take two or three breaths before you say anything. If you’re worried about the pause, you can even tell your manager that is what you’re doing. They’ll respect that you want to get the most out of the conversation by really taking it all in.
Really taking it all in is the second thing you need to do. We’ve written about active listening before, and it’s an important way to ensure that you are hearing what your counterpart intends. It’s so easy for miscommunication to lead us astray without us even realizing it. A great way to do this is just by repeating and rephrasing what you think you heard to confirm you’re both on the same page. Again, your manager or team member is going to appreciate that you’re having the same conversation.
Once you’ve confirmed you’re on the same page, it might start to sink in that this really doesn’t feel good. It’s important to remember the work you did pre-meeting to know that this person has your best interests in mind. Maybe more importantly, you need to work to see their perspective. It might be helpful to ask for specific examples if you weren’t given them initially so you can start to see the picture they see, even if it’s hard.
Finally, if you’re not seething, don’t leave after only hearing their critique of you, ask what it is they see that you can do better or what you can do to be ready for more responsibility, and in case your mind is reeling, bring a pad and take notes. If you’re not ready to have this additional conversation yet, let your boss know. Say something like, “I hear what you’re saying and I want to take some time to process it and then work to be better. Can we schedule a follow up so that we can talk about specific ways for me to improve and by what metrics I’ll be measured?”

After the Meeting

You hopefully have scheduled a buffer, and you can take time to go over what it is you’ve just heard. I know when I have conversations that are potentially difficult, I take notes because I know my memory won’t serve me well. This is a great time to go over those notes and start to dig into the areas you need to work on. Invest some time in introspection and taking true stock of how surprised you are and why that might be. Really try to see the feedback giver’s point of view.
Then, make a list. List the things your manager did praise you for. It’s important to keep those in mind to recognize that you did get balanced feedback (often the negative feedback stands out and the positive feedback is hard to remember), for your self-esteem, and to make sure that as you grow, these do not fall by the wayside. Next, make a list of what you need to do. I tend to enjoy working backward. I pick a big end goal and then work back by breaking down the big goal into smaller steps. (The tool in this article might help).
But, the thing is, sometimes all of these things to prepare and participate in review meetings aren’t going to work because you might be completely thrown off by what you hear. Sometimes what our manager sees, the metrics they are using to evaluate us, and their expectations are completely different from how we see ourselves at work, or even as a person. If this is the case, it’s important to be honest. Use “I” statements so you’re careful not to shift blame to your feedback provider about what you’re feeling and how you’re reacting.
When you reflect on the conversation honestly (and you can do that internally; it doesn’t need to be out loud), and you’re still really surprised by their feedback, and you think they might be wrong, it’s O.K. to get a second opinion. Go back to that person who you trust at work to be completely honest, and ask about your manager’s perspective. (Those qualifications are very important.) Then see what they see. Maybe you really are not seeing something about yourself, and hearing a second opinion may be hard but necessary to help you recalibrate.
If not, and your manager is off in their feedback, that needs to be handled delicately, and you’ll need to come back to your next meeting armed with backup (proof points, statistics, numbers, and project outcomes) that illustrate where you two are misaligned in how you’re seeing things. (I would avoid the word, “wrong,” and continue using “I” statements so you don’t come across as very accusing.)
At the end of the day, defensiveness is a psychological mechanism that is difficult to control, and all of us use it to differing degrees. By being aware that you might get defensive, you are already starting the process of growth, and sometimes just starting is enough for now. If you’re continuing to struggle with defensiveness, coaching can help. It’s an outside and unbiased perspective to help you start to see yourself more accurately and correct your behavior in real-time. If you think that’s something you need, contact us here.

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).