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How to Give Meaningful Feedback to Defensive People


They yell. They scream. They cry. Then they blame you.

I’ve been there far too often myself. Some people are constantly on the defensive. In order to give feedback to these individuals that is meaningful in nature, we must take their emotions into account.

Are they feeling fear or anxiety? Anger? Or maybe they are trying to cover up a mistake that they don’t want you to know about?

Negative emotions don’t have to create a negative outcome. With the right approach, it is possible for everyone involved to walk away feeling like they took something positive from the encounter. Here’s how you do it.

#1. Isolate the conversation. Defensive people tend to become more defensive if the conversation is happening in a public area. By isolating the conversation so that the feedback can be given in private, you eliminate the audience that can help to feed the negative emotions so they keep growing.

#2. Focus on the purpose of the conversation. People who are in a defensive mode are looking to counterstrike. You might have some solid feedback to give them, but they’re going to attack you at the first moment they can. The purpose here is to make sure you’re both working toward a solid outcome. Always focus on the end goal first – then focus on the steps that are required to get there.

#3. Keep yourself focused. I love stories. That makes it difficult for me to stay focused sometimes when a defensive individual is off on a tangent. I realize they’ve changed the subject, but I’m fascinated as to the outcome of that story. For the feedback to be meaningful, I’ve had to adjust my perspective. I must focus on myself. And, if you’re like me, you’ll feel more prepared when you stay centered.

#4. Do your homework. There are always people who will surprise us with a negative reaction. For the most part, however, you know exactly who on your team or in your life is going to respond defensively to the feedback you’re about to offer. So do your homework before the encounter, get some research done, and provide concrete examples of how other people in a similar situation have found success. Truth will always be an absolute defense in this type of situation.

#5. Engage the emotion. If you let negative emotions hover over your conversation, then that negativity will fester and grow. Don’t allow that to happen. A few calm words of acknowledgement can be enough to diffuse the negativity.

#6. Understand the reason behind the tears. I’m adding this one on a personal note. When I get really angry – like really, really, REALLY angry – I tend to cry. It’s because I’m trying not to explode my emotions onto the other person. I clench my jaw, I picture chucking a coffee pot at that person’s head, and I say nothing while a few hot tears stream down my face.

That’s a very different emotion compared to someone who cries because they feel like they can’t get anything right.

If you approach crying in the wrong way, you’re only going to make the situation worse. So double-check the emotions before you decide on the right way to offer the needed feedback.

It’s also a good idea to deliver difficult news at the end of the day. A negative situation in the morning can fester into a full-blown disaster by lunch. By giving people the chance to cope in their own comfortable spaces, you’re giving them a chance to eliminate their defensiveness over time.

How do you handle giving defensive people the feedback they need? Have you implemented these methods? I’d appreciate hearing about your experiences, no matter what your results may have been. 

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