How to avoid defensiveness and to learn instead

Last week I wondered out loud with you how you help others to take feedback constructively, rather than defensively. And I also asked: how do you help yourself to be so open to growth.

THANKS to the 55 people who responded . . . with quite a remarkable array of thoughts.  Here are the most clear recommendations.

1.  How do you get yourself to hear things in a constructive rather than defensive mode? The leading ideas:

A.  Know yourself.  I was struck by the 10 or so people who had different versions of knowing their hot buttons (of anger, fear, guilt, etc.); often they had tactics like “fake it til you make it,” buying time and zipping their lips.  One found enormous value in the car ride home, decompression, and later going back to thank the feedback giver.

B.   Remember your purpose.  People had different purposes but all of which were greater than their personal discomfort at being “attacked” or given tough feedback.  This one struck me:  “It’s all about humility. I am confident in my abilities, but I tell myself that I can be even more effective by listening earnestly and seriously to others’ perspectives. The day I am not willing to do that is the day that I need to retire!”

C.   Listen. Many many responses focused on just listening attentively. These were bolstered by beliefs that everyone has a different perspective, and that listening to others broadens your view. Many pointed to books that helped teach skills of listening.

2.  The other question I asked was how do you help to get others to listen in a constructive way, and here were the core, fascinating ideas:

A.  Model the way.  If you want others to listen in a positive way, then the best thing you can do is model it yourself. Fully 15 of 55 people suggested this!

B.  Create an organizational context of openness to learning.  As one person put it, “Encourage mistakes — that’s the training ground for all great accomplishments.”  This writer suggested that “the supervisors who seem to bring out the best …don’t focus on mistakes as a negative aspect, but as a ‘lessons learned’ and as encouragement for the next time. These leaders inspired productivity and loyalty.”

C.  A number of other ideas were mentioned multiple times, e.g., frame the feedback in terms of the bigger picture, the purpose or the organizational values. Another popular response was to actively listen once you had given feedback so that people feel heard and valued.

D.  Perhaps most interesting were those who seemed to almost say that they don’t actively give feedback at all, but instead draw the others out.  As one person wrote: “I find that it’s more productive to get the employee/child to take a look at the situation and suggest how they could have done it better, or ask them what advice they’d give to someone else who faced the same situation, rather than my telling them how I think they could have done better.”  I don’t agree; not if he or she means you don’t ever raise issues that you have seen unless the other has first talked about it.  Still, I think it’s a very intriguing and challenging and daring approach to really look first to draw out meaning and perspective and the desire to improve before you start offering your own opinion.

The full array of responses are available here.  Again, I thank the many of you who contributed and wish I could have done your great responses more justice!

Lead with your best self,





  • I read all the responses and most were excellent, some bringing up approaches I hadn’t considered. Even the ones that fell short (nasty criticism can still be valid) remind me of the pitfalls. Since I did not respond (short week!) let me add that one of the most effective ways I’ve found to give feedback is to borrow the Ericksonian “My Friend John” approach and say “if someone were to look at this, they might think…” I also was reminded of (if memory serves) John Houseman’s strategy of encouraging actors not to worry about flubbing their lines early on in a play’s development, because that was one indication that perhaps the line needs rewriting.

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