Why do people react defensively to feedback, even when the feedback is helpful and reasonable?

Cognitive Distortions

There are at least three common cognitive distortions that contribute to why people get defensive when given feedback.

1. The Hostility Bias

Example: The feedback recipient reacts as if the feedback giver is being purposely hostile toward them. The hostility bias tends to occur without the person being consciously aware of it. The feedback recipient reacts to a sense of being negatively targetted without necessarily having reason to believe that is the case.

2. Personalizing

Example: The feedback recipient takes the feedback excessively personally. They believe their nature (personality, character, intelligence) is being questioned.

3. Catastrophizing

Example: The feedback receiver panics about the feedback they’re being given. They believe they won’t be able to cope with making whatever changes are required. They believe the feedback will lead to a catastrophe like getting fired or them having an emotional meltdown.

Fight / flight / freeze.

When someone responds defensively to feedback, it’s often because they’ve gone into fight / flight / freeze mode.

Fight / flight / freeze is an evolved response we share with other animals in the animal kingdom. It’s hardwired in as a potentially helpful automatic response to a predator.

Example of a "fight" response: Responding to feedback by verbally attacking back.

Examples of "freeze' responses: stonewalling, refusing to talk, general defensiveness, and crying.

Examples of "flight" responses: Walking away, quitting.

The problem is the fight / flight / freeze system is prone to false alarms - it gets triggered when in reality the person isn't being attacked or in any major danger.

What Can Be Done to Reduce Defensiveness?

Feedback givers:

1. Feedback givers can communicate their overall happiness as well as their specific complaint. This will help reduce personalizing and catastrophizing.

2. Feedback givers can reduce fight / flight / freeze responses by using a softer start up rather than launching into their feedback out of the blue.

Feedback receivers:

1. Feedback receivers can find a mentor who they trust to give them feedback. They can practice exposing themselves over and over again to getting feedback, so that getting feedback becomes less likely to trigger a fight / flight /freeze response and cognitive distortions.

2. Feedback receivers can adopt a “fluid mindset” - a belief that their abilities are fluid and can be improved, rather than a “fixed mindset” that abilities and capabilities are fixed and unchangeable.

3. Feedback receivers can develop some pre-prepared phrases to help learn how to communicate even when they're in fight / flight / freeze mode.

Example - “Thanks for letting me know about the problem. Let me think about how I can incorporate your feedback.”

Practice using these phrases with a non-defensive tone and body language. In particular, practice keeping your throat and jaw relaxed while you're talking, your shoulders dropped, and your palms open (as opposed to making fists = fight).

4. If you’ve gone into fight / flight / freeze mode, discreetly use physical strategies to reduce your physiological arousal. For example, lightly stroke your own skin or take some slow breaths.

5. The most important point is to become mindful of your most typical cognitive distortions and of your typical fight / flight/ freeze response.

If you liked this article

If you liked this article, you'll probably like this one on 50 Common Cognitive Distortions.

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photo credits (from top): Alex E. Proimoskennymatic mkosut via photopin cc

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