Defensiveness is simply a war mindset in a non-war situation. Sometimes we react defensively when we feel threatened, intimidated, vulnerable and that failure is imminent even when the issue doesn’t call for extreme behavior. A trigger fast forwards the mind to how you MIGHT experience a dreaded feeling so the defensive gremlin shows up to protect you. It’s like practicing failure in advance. Once the defensive gremlin is unleashed it is very difficult to soften to a more rational perspective. Fight-or-flight takes over and the defensive gremlin keeps dancing in front of your eyes, reminding you to armor up against shame. If full blown pessimism and self-doubt set in, the defensive gremlin has won and the damage can seem irreparable. Impressions get cemented, relationships severed, confidence lost, and hurt imposed that you never intended.
1. Be Curious and Name the Feeling
Instead of jumping to the last page of your perceived Doom-and-Gloom Trilogy read in between the lines of the page you are on. Build self-awareness by pausing in the moment when you feel a threat building and name the feeling. “I am feeling that I might fail at this task and that scares me” is far better than “I can’t do this. Why did they give this to me? I always have more to do than everyone else.”
2. Be Compassionate to Yourself
Often we get defensive when we feel judged when in truth we probably beat ourselves up far more than anyone else. We mindlessly self-judge to prepare for the ax to fall. In doing so we get defensive, switch on autopilot and switch off the receptors to growth, relationships and opportunity. When you are in a confrontation, instead of practicing failure in your head find the ‘pause café’ moment to notice your breathing. In that moment comfort yourself. Breathe. What would you tell a friend who felt threatened? Tell that to yourself. “I’m feeling that I might look bad among my peers and that’s ok. I am prepared.”
3. Be Curious and Compassionate to Others
An overall respect for others softens your own heart and sets the defensive gremlin to rest. Compassion is key to good leadership because it shows you are willing to understand another’s perspective. Forgiveness is key to building compassion. Create clarity around what they issue really is. See beyond the turf war. The person you are in confrontation with is running from something far greater than you are. People who are happy do not hurt one another. Everyone has something that haunts them at times. You might love and cherish someone who in a certain situation exhibits behavior that makes you scratch your head. Ask then about it. “What were you thinking when that happened?”
4. Let Them Finish Their Stream of Thought Without Interruption
People want to be heard. Ask them for their perspective. Then ask them to tell you more and let them go on without interruption. Make no assumptions so you can hear the heart of the issue. Affirm and validate their feelings. If it is a personal relationship you might say, “You are a kind person by nature but in that instance I bet you felt _____________.” Then share with them how you feel when they behave that way. “You may not have noticed but I felt _________. At work you might say, “I know you don’t want to let the organization down by letting costs rise. I don’t either. If I can explain how we could both meet our goals would that interest you?”
Conflict allows for connection. But you have to send the defensive gremlin on vacation before that happens. Send him to Florida for the winter without even using your frequent flier miles by finding that pause café moment. If he comes back too soon, let him know you’ve got it covered with curiosity and compassion.