Giving Feedback Without Making People Defensive

Roger Schwarz

Consultants have written volumes about how to give feedback effectively. Of course, they’re usually talking about situations that include some negative feedback. Most of them recommend that you give the feedback as soon as possible, make it specific, and stay away from making high-level judgments. It’s generally good advice as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. If you want to improve the quality of your feedback, here are our suggestions:

Approach the conversation open to changing your mind.

If you think the purpose of a feedback session is to convince the other person to see it your way or to help them see the light, you’re bound to make the other person defensive. If your boss has to sign off on your rating of your direct report, that’s a particularly bad sign because the whole conversation will feel like a done deal. If, however, you consider it an opportunity to be transparent about what you’ve seen, and be curious about what you may be missing, you can learn a lot – and so can the person you’re giving feedback to. Adopting a mindset of curiosity is one of the most powerful things you can do to give feedback effectively. This doesn’t mean holding back on what you think (see below); it means being as equally curious about the other person’s view as you are convinced about your own.

Jointly design the conversation.

Everyone knows that if you control the process of the conversation, you can almost always control the outcome. If you’re receiving feedback, that’s a scary thought. Start the conversation by agreeing on the purpose of the conversation and agreeing how you will hold it. This reduces everyone’s anxiety and also lets you be partners in making sure the conversation stays on the track you agreed to. For example, after you agree on the purpose, you might say, “Let’s agree on how we want to have the feedback. I’d like to share with you the specific examples where I think you have done well and the examples where I have concerns. For the concerns, if we agree on the examples, then we can figure out what led to things not going well, and jointly decide what needs to happen to improve. How does that sound to you? Anything about what I’m suggesting that you would like to change?

Jointly design the order of the feedback.

Many of our clients assume that others want to receive feedback using the sandwich approach (start with some positive, then give the negative, then end on a positive note). They’ve been taught – erroneously – that the negative feedback goes down easier (and is easier for them) when it’s sandwiched between positive feedback. Rather than assume this, simply ask the person you’re giving feedback to how they would like to receive it. You might say, “I don’t have a preference for how I share the feedback. My interest is that you and I learn as much as possible about what will help improve your performance. I can start with the things you’ve done well or the things I’m concerned about. Or you can start. We can go chronologically through the year or any other way that makes sense. How you would you like to do it?” Again, when people jointly design the process, they have more commitment to it.

Give people the headlines – don’t make them guess.

When you give negative feedback, state exactly what you’ve seen and what your concern is (and then ask for their point of view). A good guideline is if it takes more than two sentences for the person receiving feedback to know what your concern is – you’re probably beating around the bush. You may be doing this to save face for you, the other person, or both. Unfortunately, it just makes the other person more anxious and defensive – just want you want to avoid.

Ask about your own contribution – before they raise it.

You work with people you give feedback to. That means your performance affects their performance just as theirs affects yours. In the world of thinking and acting systemically, it’s not realistic to talk about your direct reports’ performance without considering how you contribute to it. When you tell someone, “This conversation is about your performance, not mine”, you’re controlling the conversation and asking the person to be accountable for his or her behavior without doing the same yourself. That makes people defensive. To be accountable, begin the conversation by saying something like, “I’m open to the possibility that I may be contributing to the very things that I’m concerned about. If I am, I’d really like you to tell me.”

If someone does seem to get defensive – stay curious!

You can’t prevent someone from getting defensive; you can only control your own behavior to reduce the chance that you contribute to their defensiveness. If someone does seem to get defensive, you can simply ask him about it by saying, “I noticed in the last couple of minutes, you’ve gotten quiet – yes? I’m wondering, are you feeling defensive?” If the person says yes, you can say something like, “I wasn’t trying to make you defensive, but I may have done something that I wasn’t aware of. Is there anything that I’ve done that contributed to it?” It’s amazing what you can learn when you’re genuinely curious.

Hold others accountable – don’t allow anonymous feedback.

If you really want to frustrate someone and get her defensive, tell her what concerns others have about her and then tell her you can’t say who said it because it’s anonymous. This is standard operating procedure for many organizations, even for cutting-edge organizations that offer 360-degree feedback. If the purpose of performance feedback is to help someone develop, it’s nearly impossible to achieve this if she can’t talk with people directly about what she did that concerns them. Of course, asking others to give feedback to their peers and bosses often requires a change in culture. But if you can’t be accountable for giving others you work with feedback, your organization doesn’t stand much chance of becoming high performing.

If you don’t use the feedback soon, don’t use it against them.

The longer you wait to give negative feedback, the longer you contribute to the person’s ineffectiveness and the less time they have to improve. A good rule is that unless you’re giving someone feedback on something he did in the few weeks before an annual performance session, if you haven’t shared the feedback, you can’t use it to reduce the employee’s performance rating.

Get feedback on how you’re giving feedback.

Just as you want others to learn to improve their work performance, learn how to better develop others: ask them what you did in the feedback session that was helpful and would they would like you do differently next time. And then you can practice receiving feedback without getting defensive!

Originally published May 2006