Defensive Communication

4 min read

Let’s talk about effectively responding to defensive communication:

In the Responsibility-based Performance Management training manual, we define Emotional Intelligence as the ability to be aware of oneself and the other, and to then act intentionally to create a desired outcome. So, what if our awareness of the other person alerts us to defensive responses that are getting in the way of our desired outcome? An ancient Chinese saying, which may be one of the earliest recorded statements on emotional intelligence, tells us, “That which is soft always overcomes that which is hard but few have the courage to use this wisdom.” This softness is not weakness, remember, it overcomes that which is hard. Let’s first take a look at the dynamics of a hard response.

A defensive response during the exploration of a performance problem indicates that the person is in fight-or-flight mode. Defensive responses can manifest as anything along a behavioral continuum from rage to dead silence. No matter its outward appearance, defensiveness is designed to protect one’s vulnerability by directing attention away from it. If I as the guilty party can get you to react to my anger, blame, excuses, complaints, or accusations, I’ve succeeded in not having to talk about my failed responsibility, the source of my vulnerability. If I as the manager take the bait and react to any of the aforementioned behaviors by denying their validity, I’ve lost my focus on solving the problem and am no longer intentionally behaving in ways that lead to the desired outcome. I’m now hooked into a conversational tug-of-war where we both are trying to prove we are right by making the other wrong in what should be a problem-solving conversation. Here, stress and tension build quickly, little movement occurs, and the only outcome is someone landing in the mud. This is a “hard” response and the harder one pulls on the rope of being right, the harder the other pulls in response.

Now let’s look at a soft alternative in the context of addressing a common example of defensive behavior:

If an employee begins listing a series of excuses that make him unable to provide the desired performance, we first must perform an investigation using open-ended questions to sort them out from true obstacles. Clearing obstacles is something a non-defensive employee will welcome and cooperate with. If your employee is hiding behind excuses, however, you will hear repeated statements that move the ability to create a change out of his/her realm of action. The focus is on other people and circumstances that need to change, not him.  This is a strategy to avoid taking responsibility to correct the problem.

Acknowledge that there may indeed be factors the employee cannot control, “I know that there are always elements in problems beyond our control. (We don’t point out to the employee that he is making excuses, which would surely increase his defensiveness. We even agree that he may be right about some elements beyond his control, no tug-of-war rope in our hands here. Now we redirect the conversation to overcome that which is hard.) Problems, however, get solved by looking at what we can do to fix them, not at what we can’t do. Are you willing to explore the problem from a position of what you can do that would be helpful and brainstorm possible solutions with me from there?”

Note, this is a yes-or-no question and it is meant to be. Our initial open-ended questions used to investigate the problem were met with excuses. This closed question is not meant to further explore the problem, rather, they focus on the willingness of the employee to change the way he is discussing it, which is preventing a resolution from being reached. Only the most belligerent employee will respond with a “no” which amounts to insubordination and needs to be addressed as such. His “yes” however, sets the standard for his cooperative responses from this point forward. Now that we have it, we continue the discussion, immediately putting the ball back in his court with an open-ended question about changes he can develop.

“Thank you. So what do you think you could do that would be helpful here?” After possible resolutions are identified, ask, “Which ones do you think you could implement that would best solve the problem?” Give your input after his and build the performance change agreement that both of you feel confident will resolve the situation.

Thank the employee for his cooperation in resolving the problem and you will have succeeded in not only successfully working through his defensiveness this time but also in setting up a safer, more cooperative interaction next time. By not reacting with a “hard” response, we have, as leaders, taken the high road by not responding in kind, attained the desired outcome, and enhanced the relationship with a soft response that has helped both parties avoid the blisters and backaches of a conversational tug of war.

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