Do you worry about making people defensive? BrainWise tips to optimise acceptance of your feedback

October 31, 2017 9:09 pm

If you worry that giving feedback will cause defensiveness in the recipient, you are like many other people leaders. In fact, this worry is common and sometimes results in avoidance or procrastination, often to the detriment of the person and the business.

Read on for BrainWise tips for optimising acceptance of feedback.

  1. People don’t try to get it wrong

Wrong Way smallerPeople rarely deliberately perform poorly at work. How many times do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, ‘I can’t wait to frustrate my colleagues today’ or ‘things are just going too smoothly on that project, I’m going to see what I can do to derail it’, I’m tipping you don’t, and other people don’t either!

More than likely their intentions are good. Your feedback will be most effective if you just make that assumption at the beginning.



  1. Focus on giving them something they don’t already have

When people perform poorly they are often missing a skill, their perspective is too narrow, or they are unaware of what they’ve done or not done that has caused the difficulty. Sometimes, they don’t even know they’ve caused a hardship for others.

So one goal of giving feedback is to broaden their perspective so they can use the information to be more effective.

  • This can include helping the person become aware of what they are doing/not doing as well as its impact.
  • It may also include broadening their perspective about the environment and circumstances in relation to a habitual pattern of behaviour that is entirely effective in a different situation but is unhelpful in the current scenario.

It is essential to remember that in order to broaden someone’s perspective we need to tell him or her something they don’t already know.

But because of how the human brain works, this is not as straightforward as we might hope.

Behaviour can be viewed from the inside or outside.

2017.10.31 stick fig for FB internal perspectivesOur natural ‘default’ is to view our selves from the inside. When anyone views his or herself from the inside they are able to become aware of what we call internal perspectives.

They can see their intentions, motivations, feelings, thoughts and attitudes. Note that those are things that are not directly observable from the outside.




2017.10.31 stick fig for FB External and InternalWhen we view someone’s behaviour from the outside, we can see the actual behaviour (what she or he physically does or says) and we can easily observe the impact of that behaviour on the environment, others or ourselves.

It is important to recognise that the recipients of your feedback are the experts on their internal perspective – not you. However, you have a unique vantage point of being able to view their external behaviour and impact without the interference of internal perspectives e.g. what they meant to do or how they feel about what they were trying to do. This clarity is something that is hard for people to acquire through reflection or introspection – for example, we can’t help but know ‘what we meant to do’.

camera brooke-lark-194255 copyFeedback is more useful if you stick with clear observations of external behaviour and its impact, rather than trying to comment on internal perspectives (e.g. the person’s intentions, motivation, feelings etc.). In this way, you are providing something they don’t already have.

Sometimes we focus on others intentions/motivation etc. to ‘soften the feedback’. Unfortunately, in doing so, you will be wrong at least some of the time and even if you are right, it is typically not helpful to the person – you’re just telling them something they already knew. Remember that they are the experts on their internal perspective – not you.

Commenting on internal perspectives can also increase defensiveness, hinder acceptance and integration of the feedback.

  1. Become a better feedback giver

To improve your ability to optimise acceptance of your feedback:

  • Train your brain to make good observations.
  • Articulate what is happening and the impact on you or others.
  • Don’t try to guess what is going on inside the head of the recipient.

This seems straightforward, but our brains take shortcuts and jump to conclusions especially around motivational issues. Human beings are naturally always trying to understand motivations and predict behaviour. Which is okay but we have to remember we are not the experts on what is in someone else’s head. Even psychologists have to ask!

When we assume we know why people are doing what they are doing, we tend to begin our conversation at that point. Good coaches learn to overcome this natural, but in this case, unhelpful mental bias.
So if you want to use feedback to help another person improve performance:

  • Assume their intentions are good.
  • Tell him or her something they don’t already know.

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