You’re in the break room with a colleague, when he looks over and asks, “Do you always butter your bread that way?”
Ha, ha, you laugh. But inside, your story is going like this: Who does he think he is, Mr. Manners? What’s wrong with the way I butter my bread? Jerk. He’s always so critical.
If something as minor as buttering bread can provoke such feelings of defensiveness, imagine what can happen with more important issues at work.
What happens, says Sharon Ellison, M.S., is essentially war. Ellison, founder of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, teaches that the way we communicate with each other uses the same principles and tactics we would use in physical combat, based on the belief that we must protect ourselves by being defensive. As soon as we feel any threat, either of not getting what we want or of being harmed or put down in some way, we choose from among the three basic defensive war maneuvers: surrender, withdrawal or counterattack.
The myth, says Ellison, is that defensiveness will protect us, that to be open is to be vulnerable and weak. On the contrary, it is being defensive that weakens us. If the people you work with can’t rely upon your keen assessment of your role in a given situation they won’t trust you as much.
In a corporate setting, defensiveness can result in power struggles and unnecessary, destructive conflicts. And if you are defensive with customers and clients, you are more likely to lose them.
While you’re busy defending yourself, there’s also not much room for meaningful contact with others. Nor can you learn from their feedback or from your own mistakes. Your defensiveness hurts you the most.
Despite clear advantages to nondefensiveness, the opposite is pervasive. Ellison estimates that we use 95% of our communications energy being defensive. She describes the six most common defensive reactions as follows:
Surrender-Betray. We give in but defend the person’s mistreatment of us, taking the blame ourselves.
Surrender-Sabotage. We cooperate outwardly but undermine the person in some way. Passive-aggressive behavior falls into this category.
Withdrawal-Escape. We avoid talking to someone by not answering, leaving the room or changing the subject.
Withdrawal-Entrap. We refuse to give information as a way to trap the other person into doing something inappropriate or making a mistake.
Counterattack-Justify. We let someone know she is wrong to be upset with us, explaining our own behavior and making excuses.
Counterattack-Blame. We attack or judge the other to defend ourselves.
To curb your own defensive reactions, consider some of the following alternatives.
• If you feel criticized, rather than reacting or retreating, take a deep breath, tell yourself that it’s only feedback and just listen. You can correct the record later, if necessary.
• Consider if there is a kernel of truth in the criticism. If there is, acknowledge it and work to improve in that area. Your willingness to acknowledge when you’re wrong inspires colleagues, clients and management to feel confident in you.
• Realize that sometimes people’s criticisms are all about the “story” they have made up around a situation. Try not to take it personally or as your responsibility.
• When someone uses the words “always” and “never,” ignore those words and focus instead on the rest of the message.
• Listen for the (usually) hidden need expressed in a person’s complaint or anger, acknowledge the need, and then see whether there is something you can do to meet it. For instance, when a customer is complaining about your “defective” product, what he may need is to feel stable and secure, in this instance, to be able to rely upon your product. Address that need in a clear and compassionate manner and you regain not only his confidence, but his loyalty as well.
Changing how we communicate as individuals—learning that we can protect ourselves and have greater influence without using defensiveness—can not only dramatically shift our professional and personal relationships, but can also improve the bottom line.