How to React to Criticism without Feeling Defensive

2 workers disagreeing

Have you ever gone into defensive mode after someone criticized you? You’ll remember your walls going up, and all you wanted to do is shift the focus away from the critical remark.

Workplace conflict is inevitable and defensive behaviour is a natural kickback.

Defensiveness is not easy to deal with and if it’s not managed properly, it can create a toxic work environment.

Defensiveness describes ways in which we react towards another person after they criticize us. It’s a coping mechanism. As opposed to listening to the criticism, when someone is defensive, they shift focus away from the criticism by criticizing back or giving someone the silent treatment.

Overall, defensiveness stems from fear or insecurity.

It’s a completely normal reaction to criticism. However, in the long run, defensiveness can block us from both connecting with coworkers and growing as individuals.

If someone is defensive, that defensiveness gives them an illusion of control. However, if we are constantly defensive, deflecting criticism or blame, how can we grow or maintain relationships?

Are you wondering how defensiveness might play out in your workplace? There are common types of defensiveness that we might display when we react to criticism.

  1. Ad hominem attacks. These are attacks on an individual’s character or history.
  2. Silent treatment. This is when silence is used to punish someone and make them feel hurt.
  3. Bringing up the past. This looks like bringing up something someone did in the past to use against them instead of dealing with the criticism or issue at hand.

Remember, defensiveness is a completely normal reaction. But it can prevent your team from having a healthy workplace relationship. To strengthen relationships, you can implement different strategies.

Talk to your team about defensiveness to foster productivity and harmony.

Here are some tips to help you and your team members identify and resolve a disagreement when feeling defensive:

  1. Practice noticing defensiveness. The first step to overcoming defensiveness is being able to notice how it shows up in your daily life. What events trigger your defensiveness?
  2. Identify the feeling. When you notice yourself becoming defensive, be transparent about what you are going through. What feelings does defensiveness bring up for you? Are you defensive because you feel sad? Angry?
  3. Identify a need. What do you need at that moment? Letting your coworker know that you feel guarded and communicating what you need is a great way to invite them in to help you feel supported. Examples of needs: understanding, acceptance, safety, support, touch, communication, consideration, compassion, and empathy.
  4. Think about the intention behind a comment. Sometimes, we hear criticism from someone else and immediately perceive it as an attack. But what is your coworker saying? Take a moment to reflect. Are there different ways you can interpret what they said?
  5. Breathe. When you notice yourself feeling defensive, calm your nervous system by taking a few deep breaths.
  6. Take responsibility. Most importantly, accept responsibility for the role you play in each situation. Learning to take responsibility can help you get closer to a coworker and grow as an individual.

Leaders need to increase their emotional intelligence (EQ). Having the ability to identify one’s own emotions and recognize and influence the emotions of those around you will cultivate successful interpersonal relationships.