Accepting Feedback Without Defensiveness

By Mike Bechtle
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
defensive wife husband giving feedback
iStock/JackF
Feedback can reveal flaws that we don't see in ourselves. It can be painful, but it's essential. If we respond with defensiveness, we shut down a valuable tool for building an honest, thriving relationship.

“Are you going out like that?” my wife asked shortly after we were married.

Her tone wasn’t accusing, but I bristled anyway. I had been dressing myself for over two decades, and nobody had ever criticized what I wore. Just because we were married now, did that give her the right to impose her opinion on my wardrobe? I asked for an explanation.

“Well, I know you’re going to an important meeting,” she said. “That shirt doesn’t exactly go well with your pants, and I’m worried that you might lose credibility with some people.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. On one hand, I was being critiqued – and it didn’t feel good. On the other hand, I was getting valuable input from someone who cared about me deeply and wanted the best for me. Plus, she had a keen eye for color, while I had the fashion sense of Jabba the Hutt.

Feedback is a window into how others perceive us, and it can reveal areas that we don’t see ourselves. It can be painful, but it’s essential for growth in any relationship — especially a marriage. If we respond with defensiveness, we shut down one of the most valuable tools we have for building an honest, thriving relationship.

Some people respond with anger, putting the blame on the person giving the feedback. Others withdraw or change the subject so they don’t have to face the issue. Still others roll into a ball like an armadillo, withdrawing and pretending to be dead. Only healthy people see feedback as a gift to help them grow.

How do you respond to feedback?

Feedback isn’t the same as criticism

Feedback and criticism are different. Feedback is positive, because it lets us see ourselves — including blind spots — from another person’s perspective. Its purpose is to build us up and make us better. Criticism is negative and tears us down. It reflects another person’s opinion that we’re not meeting his or her standards.

Nobody likes criticism, but it sticks. We appreciate hearing positive things from people, but one critical comment can keep us up at night. Years later, we’ll remember it — and how we felt. Somehow our brains are wired to focus on the negative more than the positive.

It turns out there’s a physiological reason for that response. Researchers have found that when we hear negative information, our brains store it immediately. But when we hear positive information, we have to focus on it for about 12 seconds before it’s stored. “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones,” according to researcher Dr. Rick Hanson.

If we grew up in an environment of criticism, we assume that “feedback” will always tear us down rather than build us up. We grew up hearing, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but we wear armor to protect us from what anyone might say because we’ve experienced the hurt that words can bring.

We protect ourselves from the stinging pain of criticism, but insulate ourselves from the life-giving value that feedback can bring when it’s given correctly.

We can drop defensiveness

When we’re in a healthy relationship where we know that the other person loves us, accepts us and wants the best for us, it provides safety. That safety allows us to accept feedback from our spouse instead of interpreting it as criticism. It might still hurt, but it’s coming from someone who deeply cares about us. It’s like a surgeon who hurts us with her scalpel, but it’s because she’s committed to complete long-term healing.

“But my spouse only gives me feedback when he or she is frustrated or angry,” you say. “It’s delivered as an attack, and it’s hard to get past that.” That could be a sign of deeper relationship issues or communication skills that need to be addressed. Fortunately, an experienced counselor can provide guidance to grow relationships. And communication skills can be developed with direction and practice.

The only way we can grow is to get an accurate reflection of ourselves, both the good and the bad — and safety makes it possible for us to see them both.

So how can we overcome defensiveness when our spouse shares what he or she sees in us? Here are three basic principles for becoming open to feedback:

Reframe feedback as a gift, not an attack

Feedback gives you information about yourself that you’re unable to see on your own. Your spouse doesn’t have to give it, but he or she cares enough to take the risk. Focus on the message to see if it’s true so you can decide what change might be needed.

Ask for feedback often

Don’t wait for your spouse to give feedback out of frustration; make it part of your regular conversations. Start small so you can practice together, such as asking for his or her thoughts about a specific clothing choice (“Do you think these shoes work with these pants?”) or how you communicated with one of your kids (“Was I too harsh in what I said to Molly during dinner?”). Don’t defend or explain, just listen. For bigger issues, let your spouse know what you want feedback about, then give him or her time to process a response. Don’t expect an immediate answer.

Don’t respond right away

If you react defensively, you’ll never get feedback again. Make it safe by:

  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Not justifying or explaining.
  • Avoiding sarcasm or quick emotional reactions.
  • Asking clarifying questions (“When you say ‘too often,’ can you tell me what that looks like?”)
  • Thanking your spouse for the input.

If it’s an emotional subject for you, you’ll be tempted to speak your mind right away. But ask for time to process so you can think carefully about your response. Your thoughts will be clearer when you do share them, and your emotions will be more controlled. It will be a much stronger response if it’s carefully crafted.

Plan time for the two of you to develop a game plan for mutual feedback. Decide on ground rules you’ll use to make feedback safe, and post the rules somewhere obvious. Use them to practice your skills together, and you’ll open a whole new world of communication!

Discover the Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Marriage

We want your marriage to be thriving and healthy. Take a free marriage assessment to identify the key areas where your marriage could use improvement and the tools that will help you strengthen your bond with your spouse. Take the free assessment!

© 2019 Mike Bechtle. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

Share:
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

About the Author

Mike Bechtle

Dr. Mike Bechtle is a writer, public speaker and senior consultant for FranklinCovey. He has authored five books, including Dealing with the Elephant in the Room.

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.


If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.