Overcoming Defensiveness

by Miki Kashtan

Why is receiving feedback challenging? Whenever any one of us gives feedback that is tainted with criticism, judgment, or our personal upset, we create a situation that requires a lot more capacity and skill from the person who receives our feedback. So, a big part of why receiving feedback is so challenging is because so few people around us know how to give feedback. But, if we wait for others to offer us usable, digestible, manageable feedback, we will not likely receive sufficient feedback for our growth and learning.

The alternative is to stretch our inner muscles, seek feedback, and grow in our capacity to fish the pearl that’s in what may otherwise be someone else wanting to be heard for how upset and angry they are with us. How do we do that, and how do we grow in our capacity to do that?

The more self-acceptance we have, the easier it is to hear feedback, because we can relax into ourselves and receive it as information rather than confirmation that there is something wrong with us.

Working towards receiving feedback also invites us to listen empathically to others. What is the essence of what they are saying? Can you hear an observation even if it’s not fully stated, or ask for one? Can you reach for understanding why this is important to the person giving feedback even if the words are focused entirely on you? Can you fill in the gaps about what strategies you might employ for addressing the issues raised even if the other person has no suggestions?

If you want to grow in this arena, here are three specific suggestions:

Working on defensiveness

You can set up role-plays in which you invite people to give you “negative” feedback with low-intensity. Listen to it, and as soon as you feel a contraction, the precursor to defensiveness, stop the feedback process, and inquire into your reaction. You can empathize with yourself out loud, or ask the other person for empathic presence (outside the role-play). If you are not familiar enough with the tools of NVC, you can work on self-acceptance directly by taking a few breaths and saying to yourself internally: “even if this thing said about me just now is true, there is still nothing about me that’s worse than anyone that’s ever lived.” Whatever you do, do it for a little while, until you feel ready to hear more feedback. Then go back to the role-play and continue until you can get through the entire piece of feedback without contracting. Then redo with a higher intensity feedback. Over time, if you continue with this practice, you will increase your presence with yourself and be able to stay relaxed.

Seeking feedback from people in your life

You can start with your closest people, the ones you would most trust love and care about you, who would be willing to do it in order to support you. Invite them to talk about things they may have been happy to let go of because of their love and trust. Let them know how much of a gift their honesty would be for you. In the process, you will discover how much more intimacy this added level of honesty can bring to your relationship, even if it’s uncomfortable for both of you along the way.

Then branch out to people who are not so close to you, whose feedback you may not find so much ease in receiving. As you work on your defensiveness, feedback, even angry feedback, is not going to be as scary. Be clear inside yourself what is leading you to seek feedback from each person you approach, and communicate this clarity to them. And, in the end, remember to thank them, even if you are in pain.

Integrating Feedback

Once you received the feedback, it’s time to decide what you want to do with it. The first thing is to overcome any self-judgments. One way of doing it, in addition, to the self-acceptance practice I suggested earlier, is to remember all the people in the world who may have had a similar experience of self-judgment. This, too, sometimes helps relax the intensity of the judgment and bring perspective back in.

Then, connect with your own interests and goals in terms of your growth. Is this feedback aligned with areas you want to work in? If not, you can mourn the unmet needs that arise from your existing behaviors and choices, and relax into self-acceptance. You don’t have to work on anything and everything that someone says is an issue for you. You are the one who sets the priorities.

If you do want to work in this area, can you come up with incremental steps that you can put in place to implement the changes you want? Is there a way that you can enlist the person who gave you the feedback as support for monitoring your movement towards your goals? Are there others you can lean on as you embrace the vulnerability of change? Can you maintain sufficient self-acceptance so that your attempt to change behaviors or choices does not turn into harshness and violence towards yourself?

The gift of feedback is about increased honesty, connection and even intimacy with the people who share it with you, and about increased opportunities for you to grow where you want. Keeping this clarity and avoiding the trap of taking blame or pushing back, will turn feedback into what it could be: a gift that one human being gives another freely for the benefit of both of them.

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