3 min read

Listen First Resist The Urge To Defend

Listen First Resist The Urge To Defend

If you asked leaders, “Do you want to create a workplace where employees feel safe to share their opinions, feedback, and concerns?” most would answer yes.

However, it is inevitable that, as leaders, we will receive concerns, challenges, and feedback that we disagree with, and sometimes it will come at inopportune moments.

Imagine having a hectic day with a pressing deadline when an employee approaches you to discuss something that isn’t sitting well with them. Maybe the person comes on strong, or they don’t choose their words well, or perhaps they present their concerns with tact and thoughtfulness, but on that day, in that moment, it hits you hard.

If you allow your emotions to get the better of you and respond with frustration, you’ll not only shut that person down; you’ll set a precedent that will be very hard to shake. Other employees will think twice when they want to come to you.

This is where the rubber hits the road for us leaders. Even when it’s difficult, we must resist the urge to become defensive and respond with anger or frustration. Otherwise, we will severely compromise the culture of safety and inclusion that we’re working hard to create.


It is normal to feel put off by information or feedback that you perceive to be negative. No one likes to hear that something they’re doing is not being well received or achieving the desired result.

Being able to receive negative feedback, particularly when the timing is off, and resisting the urge to defend, are not innate skills; they are developed through intention and practice.

Below are some steps you can take to manage interactions like this in a manner that preserves the sense of safety that you’ve created while allowing you space to respond thoughtfully.

  • Pause and listen instead of reacting and defending.

  • Practice empathy (i.e., being non-judgmental), humility, and openness to others’ opinions and concerns

  • Remind yourself that you’re not perfect and no one expects you to be. Naturally, people will sometimes disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in your corner. In fact, they might be speaking out because they are as passionate about achieving desired results as you are.

Accept that ideas and decisions may be challenged. The ability to engage in respectful debate and brainstorming to innovate are essential characteristics of a healthy workplace environment. To encourage this, we must be careful not to default to defending our position when challenges arise. We gain more trust and inspire people by being open and listening to different perspectives.


Focus on ideas and information, not emotions. Naturally, your feelings may cloud your response, especially if caught off guard. Shifting the focus from what you're feeling to what is being said and acknowledging the feedback can help you manage your response. Try asking an open-ended question, such as: "OK, thanks for this information. Can you help me understand how you came to this conclusion?" This moves the discussion from defensiveness to discovery.


When employees feel heard, they are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and may be more open to considering your point of view or other facts.


Listening without interrupting helps workers feel heard. Once you've heard the other person's perspective, check to confirm they have provided the necessary facts and information. Repeat back to them what you heard to ensure you understand their position and ask for their recommendations.


Do not feel a need to respond immediately — A positive step toward creating a psychologically safe workplace is listening to different opinions and recommendations. If you're not convinced or you aren't sure how to respond to the feedback, don't feel that you have to react or decide immediately.


If there is no risk to pausing, thank the individual for their information and point of view. Tell them you will consider it and will get back to them. If you need to consult others, let them know you will do so. Ensure you've communicated that you will close the loop and let them know when they can expect to hear back. It is essential to square with them on what you decide to do.


The employee needs to know that you may keep your position and decision the same, you may make some slight modifications, or the conversation might lead to significant change. Whatever the case, let them know what you've decided and why.


Speaking truth to power is a difficult but important skill. The employee may be under stress or they might be feeling nervous about approaching you with their concerns. If you set the tone and respond openly, you will help diffuse their nerves and model behaviour that can help them in the future.That said, having an open, psychologically safe culture does not mean that people can misbehave. So if the conversation is emotionally-charged, you may have to take steps to co-regulate emotions.


An environment like this isn't permissive or indulgent, and it isn't about being overly friendly, avoiding conflict, and promising that all ideas will be applauded and acted upon. People still need to be held accountable for performance, behaving professionally, and being respectful of one another.




With each interaction, we can create a positive, open, inclusive, positive climate.


The McKinsey & Company article Psychological Safety And The Critical Role Of Leadership Development, highlights that we can create the right climate, mindset, and behaviours by acting as catalysts, empowering and enabling others and role modeling behaviour.


If we manage moments like this well – even when challenging – we will build trust, and employees will see that we are putting our words into action. We can also demonstrate how to manage conflict and differences of opinion healthily and respectfully.


Get to know the author – Dr. Bill Howatt


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