Spotting Your Own Defensiveness and Defusing it in Others

Defensiveness prevents clear communication. The reaction happens because a person feels threatened. Whether the causes are from inside or outside of an organization, defensiveness presents as rigid, stuck communication. In this chapter, you will learn how to recognize your own defensiveness and how to defuse it in others.

unhappy-conversationThe First Moment: Defensiveness 

If your listeners are defensive, your message will most likely be lost. Something has caused them to feel that you, whether intentionally or not, are attacking them or their idea. This emotion causes them to focus on defending their content or character instead of exploring solutions.

They are struggling, and it may be your fault.

You may not have set the right expectations. You may have used a tone that didn’t match your intended message. You may not have given them the resources to achieve their goals. They may just be tired. If you engage their defensiveness, you will make it worse. If you know how to approach their defensiveness, you can instantly redirect their negative energy whether it’s fear, doubt, or worry and help them leave the conversation with your message.

The Trap

They say no. You say yes. They say, “I didn’t know.” You say, “You should have.” Maybe you were taught to ask questions as a way of managing effectively, so you say, “How could you not know?” But this question suggests that they are somehow not smart because they did not know. While that may not be your intended message, it’s there. Their spines will rise and their eyes will narrow. If you react to their posturing instead of listening and helping them to sit back and reflect on what’s bothering them, they will react as well. Instead of focusing on the real purpose of your conversation, they will fight you.

If you are in a conversation and you notice that someone is getting defensive, stop. Don’t go any further with your point. Don’t try to make your point in a different way. This will rarely work. If someone is defensive, he isn’t listening. He has one agenda, and that is to deflect what he thinks is your attack. You may need to just listen to ask a question like “What do you need?” or to say, “Help me understand your point of view.” Then stop. You may have to continue the conversation at another time. The fact that you take the time to process and digest that conversation is validation. That’s the first step in overcoming defensiveness.

You can fall into this trap even when you go into a conversation knowing that someone might be defensive. If you haven’t prepared how you want to approach her emotion, rigid belief, or confusion, she will stay shut down and retreat deeper into herself. To help her come to a decision or understand your point of view without feeling defensive, the format to use is called “defensive persuasion.”

The Format 

  1. Validate first. If people are to be comfortable, they have to know that you value their opinion on whatever issue is causing their defensiveness even if you disagree. Decide how you’re going to validate. Will it be a head nod? Listening? Paraphrasing? People can’t open their minds until they know you have heard and understood their point especially when you completely disagree with it. Even in established relationships, you will need to validate. You won’t need to do this as often, but if people are fired up, the only way to cool them down is to show them that you recognize their value or the value of their contribution.
  2. ethan-becker-book-coverFrame. What message do you want them to get? You have to decide this ahead of time. That’s why if you run into someone who is defensive and you can’t figure out why and he won’t tell you, you have to end the current conversation. If you don’t know the message you want the person to understand, the conversation will go in circles. He will stay defensive. 
  3. Decide your timeline. You may not overcome someone’s emotion in one conversation. In fact, it may take many. Sometimes you will have to validate for two or three conversations before you can frame what you need from the other person. If you have done this well, the trust you build will allow you to communicate more immediately the next time.

Adaptation from Mastering Communication at Work, Second Edition: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence (McGraw-Hill Education, February 2021)



Ethan Becker & Jon Wortmann

Ethan Becker & Jon Wortmann

Ethan F. Becker, PhD is the president and senior coach/trainer for the Speech Improvement Company. Jon Wortmann is an advisor and speaker on leadership, communication, and building trusted relationships. They are the authors of Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage, and Influence, second edition released in February 2021. An instant classic, the first edition of Mastering Communication at Work, is an international bestseller taught at universities and referred to by leading CEOs. In the years since it was first published, it’s been the go-to “communication playbook,” helping leaders develop strategic responses and communication tactics with clear, actionable advice. So, what's changed in the last 10 years? Well, nothing—and EVERYTHING.

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