4 Tips for Giving Feedback to a Defensive Coworker


collaborating at work


Kelly Poulson
Kelly Poulson51
Coach. Career Navigator. Ass Kicker. Dog mom.
April 19, 2024 at 5:38AM UTC
It’s not uncommon to run into challenging moments or struggles with your colleagues. That’s what happens when human beings get together. And sometimes, no matter how much you may try to avoid it, you need to have a difficult conversation with someone. And you can’t really predict how that person will respond to it. Some people are very receptive to feedback one day and less so the next. But don’t worry. There’s no need to cut your losses and make a run for it. You can set yourself (and that person) up for success when facing what could be interpreted as a tough feedback conversation. Let’s think through the how below.
1. Remember the real goal.
When you inevitably sit down to have a tricky conversation with someone, it can feel icky...for both of you. But, a crucial concept to remember is to stay in touch with why you are doing it. You are giving this feedback with the intent of making this person better, or to inform them of something they are doing that is negatively impacting their growth, their interactions with the team, etc.
You are having this conversation not because you love to stress people out or giving bad news, but because you are hoping to shed light on something they may not be aware of that when addressed will allow them to evolve. Your end game is to improve the situation for them as much as the rest of the team. If you’re coming from a place of truly wanting to help, it makes things easier.
2. Environment counts.
You want to be as thoughtful as possible about not only how you are delivering this information, but also where and when. If you know the person you’re speaking to has a major deadline tomorrow and is stressed beyond belief, now may not be the best time to address any challenges you might be having with them. If someone on your team had an awful client meeting, in the car on the drive home together might not be the time to address it. Guess what? Chances are they know it didn’t go well and need time to get into a better headspace to think clearly.
Where you choose to have this conversation also matters. If you’re in an open office, it’s not cool to address something that could have someone’s back up out in the open. Seek out a quiet space or head to the park or a local coffee shop. You want this person to feel free to be able to react as they need to in the moment and not worry about colleagues overhearing. Taking some time to think through the location and timing will make matters much easier.
3. Choose your words wisely.  
When you’re speaking with someone about a behavior that they’re exhibiting that either upsets you or the team, be mindful of the words you’re using. Hearing, “Mary, you take too long on your piece of the project and it’s frustrating to everyone else” is different than “Mary, can you tell me a little more about your process? We’re running into challenges with limited time at the end of projects and are investigating what might be going on.”
If I’m Mary, option two feels much better than being told I’m the problem off the bat without being listened to at all. You don’t really know what you’ll uncover by starting out the conversation in a way that makes your colleague a part of finding the solution to challenges instead of the person at the root of it all. Starting statements with you tends to put people on the defensive and unwilling to listen to what comes next. Choose your words carefully in the hopes that you can discuss like adults and get to a solution that benefits everyone involved.
4. Remember the good times.
If someone only hears from you when you’ve got constructive feedback, you’re doing something wrong. Positively reinforcing and appreciating someone’s outstanding behavior leaves them feeling way more willing to hear and take action on any other pieces of feedback you might have for them. Give them shout outs when they’ve earned it. Make it known that you recognize their awesomeness. If it’s all doom and gloom any time you ask to speak to them, it’s no wonder they aren’t looking forward to conversations with you…..
Giving feedback is rarely cut and dry. There is no one formula or solution. People are different and what works for one person, may not work for another. However, if you take the time to be thoughtful about the why and the how, all you can do is hope that the person receives the feedback in the spirit in which it’s being given. The only guarantee if you remain silent is that nothing will change. Be brave enough to have a conversation that could make a difference!

Kelly is a human resources pro and coach who helps people find and achieve what they want career-wise and beyond. Coaching, training, recruiting – if you name it in the world of HR, she's done it in a variety of industries. Her advice has been featured on The Muse, Career Contessa, Levo, Workology, among others. Learn more by scoping her out at www.kellypoulson.com.

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