Few of us are naturally receptive to hearing the message that we may be contributing to the very interaction problems that we’re trying to solve. We have a natural tendency to externalize problems: we blame others for the reasons why we (or our work groups) are not being more effective and we have a tendency to react defensively.
The strength of this defensive reaction varies widely from person to person and from group to group. Sometimes, it is a mild reaction — a passing thought — and the person or group stays open to hearing what the other side has to say so the reaction does not hinder interaction.
But in other cases, a defensive reaction is strong. A person gets bristly or even aggressive; or the person gets very quiet, keeps their head down, and tries to avoid the slightest hint of conflict; or people become bossy and controlling.
No matter the strength of the reaction, defensiveness creates barriers to effective interaction. Think about the most defensive person you know. How willing are you to be to approach that person with a suggestion about how they could do things differently or better? Someone who offers even a minor suggestion for change quickly learns their effort is fruitless and probably never tries it again.
Let’s face it: people don’t get defensive if you’re complimenting them, right? That means defensiveness arises in situations where someone is listening to something they don’t want to hear. The more critical the feedback you want to give someone —or that someone wants to give you — the more skillful people have to be in delivering the message in a way that doesn’t arouse defensiveness.
Unfortunately, defensiveness is an emotional response spurred by deeply rooted things that everyone finds difficult to deal with. You can’t fight defensiveness with logic. And you have to do something, no matter what your skill level is.
From a practical standpoint, it’s best to think of defensiveness like an infection: the best cure is always prevention! (Perhaps a highly skilled facilitator can get people to continue working together even if someone has a strong defensive reaction, but for most of us we’d be better off taking a break and tackling the subject when tempers are cooler.)
To prevent defensiveness, start by trying to become more attuned to defensive reactions in yourself and others. Think about what was happening that triggered the defensive reaction: was it a tone of voice? a particular subject matter? the type of statements being made? Adopt ground rules for your groups that will help create a safe environment for people to express honest opinions. That might include goals such as:
- Listening with respect to all ideas
- Working from valid information regardless of who contributes it
- Focusing on learning, not blaming
- Agreeing that people should listen to all feedback, but can decide for themselves whether and how to react to it
Ground rules like these can help create an environment where people are willing to listen to each other without becoming defensive.
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About the Author
Max is the CEO of Belbin North America. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience from his career in general management and consulting in North America, England, Europe and Asia. Max has assisted CEOs and senior leaders within client organizations with the design and implementation of Interaction Planning processes, team based organizational development programs and Lean Six Sigma initiatives.