Communication Skills: Strategies To Use When You Feel Defensive

for every minute you are angry you lose 60 seconds of happinessCommunication is problematic at best. As a leader or team member, however, the more proficient you are in understanding what others are communicating to you, the better your response and ultimate effectiveness.  So when communications causes you to become defensive, what is the best course of action?

When we get defensive, we make it hard for the people we are talking with to hear what we’re saying. We also make it harder to really listen to what they have to say. Soon, we’re like two porcupines trying to dance without sticking it to one another or two shadow boxers making things up and wasting energy on “after conversation” damage control instead of solving the problem at hand.

If you get hooked by becoming defensive — and most of us do — you probably already know it. It’s likely come up in conversations with your boss or your spouse. And when it did, you probably got defensive about being defensive. After all, it is human nature to get defensive if we feel like we’re being attacked! The big question is, “Is the other person actually attacking you?” Before you leap off the ledge, it is wise to check it out.

So what are some strategies to hold defensiveness back?

I share quite a few strategies in the new complimentary member webinar, Avoid 3 Serious Mistakes Small Business Owners Make That Generate Team Conflict and Lost Profits. (Click here for play back.  No registration required.)  This topic is also suitable for managers and supervisors so if you are not a small business owner, the topic still applies.

For now though, here are a couple of ideas for non-retaliatory, solution-oriented responses:

  • Lead with curiosity: An example of leading with curiosity is,  “Say more about ______.” Think of the words they used that had the most emphasis and invite them to say more about that topic.  You will buy yourself time to think and calm down, let your counterpart feel heard, and disarm a counterpart who has bad intentions.
  • Build on the other’s view with curiosity: Another way to do it is to say, “If we do that, what would be the next step to keep it going?” or “If we do this, what would be the way to get the most out of it?”
  • When you feel someone is making up something about your intentions, a wonderful curiosity question is, “Why do you say that?” A busy body will be totally disarmed and will back down.

The main reason to stop becoming defensive is that it usually triggers the same response in the other person. If instead you look for ways to be more solution-oriented through your curiosity, you will soon find yourself on your way to more cooperation and collaboration.

  • As you probably know, when you say, “yes, but” it negates everything the other person has said. This contributes to the other person becoming defensive. “Yes – and” validates what has been said — and adds to it.  For example, “Yes, that’s a good point and to make it work even better…” or “Yes, I heard everything you said and help me figure out the way to make sure it gets incorporated…”
  • But, what if the person is genuinely unfairly attacking you? Then I recommend a controlled confrontation. You do this by pausing after they speak for a full count of three in your head.  This takes the conversation away from escalating and may cause the other person to pause because when you don’t take the bait, they are in unfamiliar territory and this can have a slightly disarming effect.

At that point, look them squarely, calmly, and firmly in the eye and say, “Whoah! Let’s each take a breath here because I am feeling very reactive and I know until I calm down a bit, whatever I say or do now will only make this conversation worse.  And I am not going to do that.”

Then take that breath and say, “Okay, what’s clear to me is that something is frustrating you.  What, from your perspective, would you like me to do to make that frustration go away?  If it’s doable and fair to you and me and everyone it affects and in their best interest, I think I’ll be happy to oblige.  If however it isn’t fair or in everyone’s best interest, I’m going to have a problem going along with it.”

Then be quiet, let them respond and if it doesn’t seem fair and in everyone’s best interest say, “I’m having some difficulty understanding how that will be fair to everyone and in their best interests. Perhaps you can explain otherwise or we can brainstorm on how to make it so.”

By being unflappable and standing up for the principles of fairness, and reason, and mutual best interest, you will be better able to stand up for what’s right — and stand up to them in a way that is neither defensive or provoking.

How about your ideas? What has worked for you in the past to calm down in communication with someone else that transforms the conversation into improved understanding?

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