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Defusing Defensive Employees 

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Business > Further than Figures

Defusing Defensive Employees

How to give negative feedback positively.


As a supervisor or manager, one of your toughest jobs is to give negative feedback to your people. Far too often, employees get defensive when confronted with criticism. Their defensiveness can be awkward and upsetting, causing you to veer away from your intended message. Defensiveness is known to worsen listening ability, so when you finally walk away from the interaction, you’re still uncertain whether your message was heard. Sound familiar?

To overcome these challenges, successful leaders master the art of assertive language, which is based on the premise that you can emphasize what you need and still be respectful. While assertive language does not guarantee that the other person will not become defensive, it does lessen the likelihood of it happening. It improves the odds that your message will be received and understood in the way you had intended.

There are numerous assertive language tools in the successful leader’s communication toolkit, but let’s look at the simplest and most basic – “I” language. Consider this situation where Amy is frustrated with Jerome, an employee always late in submitting his weekly expense statements for her approval. She walks over to Jerome’s desk and says, “Jerome, you frustrate me when you don’t submit your expense statement on time.”

Unfortunately, Amy’s use of the word “you” is practically guaranteed to make Jerome defensive and reduces the chance that he will listen effectively. However, if Amy was to use “I” language in this conversation, she would have much greater success in ensuring that her message was received and understood. Consider this statement: “Jerome, I feel frustrated when I don’t receive your expense statement on time.”

While the difference between these two statements may seem subtle on the surface, the difference is huge. In the first statement, Jerome can easily perceive Amy as “attacking” him; in the latter statement, Amy is merely expressing her feelings, a circumstance that is much less likely to be perceived as confrontational. Also, there’s really no room for argument in the second version – after all, Jerome can’t dispute Amy’s statement that she is frustrated. The bottom line: less defensiveness on Jerome’s part means better listening and comprehension, and an increased likelihood that he will understand and act on Amy’s message.

Let’s look at a second example. In this situation, systems programming team leader Kate is getting increasingly irritated with Farah, one of her team members. Kate has been trying to give Farah some instructions on how to solve a programming problem, and Farah keeps interrupting her. Annoyed, Kate bursts out, “Farah, you’re not listening to what I’m telling you.” Can you guess Farah’s answer? It will most likely be: yes, I am! Kate could be more effective by saying, “Farah, I need you to listen to the explanation I am giving you.”

These are just two simple examples, but there are a variety of “I” statements you can use. Test them out and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their power and positive results. Here are some good “starter” phrases:

  • I feel ...
  • I need ...
  • I believe ...
  • I agree ...
  • I understand ...
  • I have observed ...
  • I am concerned about ...

Remember, nobody likes giving negative feedback to another person, but in your role as a leader, there are times when you will have no choice. Remember your goal is to have the employee hear your message and act positively on it. Use “I” language to reduce the likelihood of the person becoming defensive. I believe you will find this to be a viable and positive approach.

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