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Defensiveness and Ways to Short-Circuit it

Remember the TV show from the 1970’s called Kung Fu? I know I’m really dating myself here, but if you were in my age group then Kwai Chang Caine (the always-misunderstood hero of the show) was the COOLEST guy there was…

Why was he so cool? He never, ever got angry, he never got defensive, but he had really cool Kung Fu moves. Today’s writing isn’t about Kung Fu – but it is about getting defensive. I’m talking today about how we can understand and shut down our own defensiveness before it makes a mess of things.

Defensiveness really interferes with healthy conflict. You know what I’m talking about, of course. It's that moment in a meeting when someone asks us a question and suddenly our hackles are up – we’re suddenly on the defensive. Or we were talking about work projects and without warning we find ourselves searching for hidden motives in the other person’s questions. We were fine, and then we’re measuring people’s words for meaning, summoning internal arguments to defend ourselves before anyone has really come at us, and feeling more and more like we’re being criticized or judged.

Defensiveness can make it challenging to wade into the necessary conversation, the scratchy disagreement, the essential argument. It almost invariably takes conflict (if we’re not prepared) sideways. When we get defensive we tend to:

  • Listen for criticism instead of information

  • Strike back or lash out instead of listen

  • React out of Flight or Fight while it’s going on (and so not do our best thinking)

  • Often mess up a potentially useful, necessary conversation

WHY Do We Get Defensive?

That’s the easy part! We get defensive when we feel attacked. We get defensive most of the time when we feel like our efforts, our thinking or our intentions are questioned or evaluated as wanting in some way. It might be about the quality of our work, how we’re managing employees, peers or bosses, the level of our personal integrity, or the nature of the relationship we have with clients or vendors, just to name a few examples.

The great thing about defensiveness is that, with a little practice and self-awareness, we can easily figure out why we’ve put our guard up. With a little more we can largely disconnect the distrust and reactive nature of defensiveness, enabling us to deal in agile and useful ways with those defensive moments.

Effective Steps at Shutting Down Defensiveness in Ourselves

To short-circuit defensiveness and make potential conflict useful we have to:

1) Get clear on WHY we are defensive. What boundary got crossed? What are we assuming is happening here in what was said or done? If all we did was ask why we’re defensive and kept practicing that question we’d be miles ahead. The more we can get under WHY we are defensive the more we have power over that reaction. Sometimes it can be helpful to have outside input from colleagues, friends, partners. People who know us well often know what makes us defensive – isn’t that strange?

They can also help by assisting us to think through our defensive reaction more clearly, as well as provide a listening ear while we step back from our defensive posture. My Dad used to call this being talked out of our tree…

2) Step back. Often the best thing we can do is just get some distance from our reaction in the first place. Sometimes that may mean stepping away for the minute. In more extreme cases it might make sense to shelve the conversation until later. It might just mean taking a moment to slow down and think about your reaction.

It’s important to remember the role of Flight or Fight in defensiveness. Even understanding that we are in some small version of Flight or Fight can make everything less reactive. Which means it can be really helpful to -

3) Listen first, then see what we feel/think about what’s going on. Yet another tedious outcome of getting defensive is the impact it has on our ability to really listen/be present for the conversation. We may need to talk about our defensiveness, even in the situation, to get it over and done with. But often we can get sorted out by just slowing down to listen first.

4) Stay focused on the issue instead of our reaction. Even in our most reactive moments we can practice staying issue-centered. Sometimes this will kick us out of our defensive reaction. Sometimes we can resolve the issue and then be at our leisure to sort out why we got defensive in the first place.

5) Ask ourselves this excellent question: what are the long-term consequences of our immediate defensiveness? This is especially useful when we’ve really gotten geared up, become seriously distracted, angry and reactive. A couple of deep breaths, a mental stepping back and we can get some distance mentally and emotionally from our reaction.

Excellent. So what do we do when OTHER people get defensive?

Effective Steps at Shutting Down Defensiveness in Other People

1) LISTEN. If you want to help someone else quickly, LISTEN to them. Reflect what you’ve heard back to them. CONFIRM that’s what they said! This may take a minute or a couple of efforts before it takes effect and they come back into the room mentally.

2) Don’t overthink the moment and their defensive reaction. Let them be scratchy or grumpy, and give them a little space. It’s hard to stand down immediately from a defensive stance (as you already know). We get a little worked up when we get defensive. They will bless you for it, although they may not do so immediately…

3) Move on. If they want to talk about it, they will. The interesting part of reacting to defensive moments in this way is that people will, over time, be less likely to be defensive when you are around. They will have an increased sense of trust in you and your chill factor.

Powering Down the Defensive Moment

Let’s take defensiveness out of the driver’s seat in our interactions with co-workers, family and friends, as much as we can. I’m a huge fan of healthy conflict, but at the same time there’s such a thing as defusing unnecessary conflict in the first place. A lot of defensive reactions don’t need a conflict to resolve.

Let’s be more like Kwai Chang Caine – let’s be cool when it comes to defensiveness, in ourselves and other people. (And if you know any great Kung Fu teachers or studios in LA I’d love to pick your brain!)


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