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COMMUNICATION SKILLS: Today’s Needed Leadership Skill – Lowered Defensiveness

“I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.”  “It looks fine to me.” “I did exactly what you told me to do.” “You never told me I needed to do…..” “What right do you have to criticize what I do?” “The blame really lies with your area, not mine.”

Any of these sound familiar? As a leader, manager or supervisor, we emphasize continuous improvement, open communication and customer satisfaction; yet, our first reaction when someone comes to us with negative feedback is to refute, negate or defend our own or department’s actions.

In Dr. Harriet Lerner’s latest book, Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and Coupled Up, she talks about just how common it is to be defensive, “We’re all defensive a fair amount of the time, although we may be better able to observe defensiveness in other people.”  She goes on to say, “Defensiveness is normal and universal. It is also the archenemy of listening.” It’s not surprising that once we get defensive, it becomes impossible for us to gather information, understand different perspectives, and get to the root of the issue – all the effective problem solving steps needed for resolution and improvement.

If this is true, then lowered defensive is a “skill” we build, not a natural tendency. It starts with our ability to become aware of our reactions to criticism from others in our body language, tone of voice and word choices. Then, we must practice the desired response until it becomes a habit. In our role as a leader, our employees look to us to demonstrate this skill and help them to develop it within themselves.

Dr. Lerner suggests starting with her 12-step program to lower your defensiveness:

1. Name it. It’s called “defensiveness, a defensive posture or stance, and self-defense.” Expect it. Ask others what you do when you get criticized. Learn to recognize the red flags and your reactions. Resist the tendency to listen for the inaccuracies, errors and exaggerations. Do not let your mind take you to the other person’s wrongdoings in a similar situation or think, “But, but but…..” Focus on recognizing your own immediate defensive reactions and controlling them.

2. Breathe. Just as our mind races to refute the criticism, our body is now in defensive mode. Our muscles become tense; our heartbeat quickens and often, we start to shake as adrenaline is pumped into our system. Our body temperature can go up and our palms become sweaty. Your response must be to calm down your body. Take deep, long breaths and count to ten. Work on relaxing your muscles. Smile. If you purposefully force your body to negate the normally defensive reaction, the mind will follow.

3. Don’t interrupt. Dr. Lerner suggests that, “if you can’t listen without interrupting, it’s a good indication that you haven’t calmed down.” If you find that you can’t calm down, be honest with the other person and say, “This has really taken me by surprise. I want to listen to your feedback, but I need some time to absorb just the fact that you aren’t pleased with how I’ve handled this situation. Can we take a 10-minute break or schedule some time this afternoon to talk about this?” If that’s not possible, ask to be excused to the bathroom. Take that time you need to focus on relaxing your mind and body. Be sure to take your mind captive and don’t allow yourself to drift back into defensiveness.

4. Ask for specifics. The goal here is gain clarity, not to poke holes in the other person’s feedback.  Watch your tone of voice for sarcasm or combativeness. Ask questions, but don’t cross examine or rapid-fire them.

5. Find something to agree with. There has to be some point of commonality between the other person’s point of view and yours. Sometimes, it may simply be that you both desire to have the job done well or arrive at the same end or goal. This recognition will help to shift the conversation from one of positioning, to collaboration.

6. Apologize for your part. In this step, the key is to take some responsibility, even if that means simply saying, “I’m sorry that my performance didn’t meet your expectations.” Or, “I apologize for not coming to you and asking for better clarification on how you wanted me to handle the situation.” Or, “I’m sorry I didn’t communicate better with you or provide you with more frequent updates.” Here, we can be our own worst enemy. The goal is to find the middle ground between “everything is my fault” and “nothing is my fault.”

7. No Buts. By interjecting the word “but,” we send the message of refuting or negating the other person’s feedback. Be super conscious to avoid this word in the discussion. Replace “but” with “and” to add your thoughts, if necessary.

8. Don’t counter-criticize. This is a tough one. Dr. Lerner suggests that there is a time to bring up your own grievances, but not when the other person has taken the initiative to surface his/her complaints. She goes on to say, “If your complaints are legitimate, all the more reason to save them for a time when they can be the focus of conversation, and not a defense strategy.”

9. Let the other person know he or she has been heard. Paraphrase what you have heard back to the person to make sure you really do understand what he or she is saying to you. Work to surface requests and expectations with sentences such as, “If I understand you correctly, you would have preferred me to do x.” Focus on uncovering what was expected of you and convey to the other person that you now understand. Practice empathy; put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Live in his or her world and think about what is important to him or her. If you don’t know, say, “It sounds to me like x is really important to you; is that true?  Do not dwell on whether you knew it or did it. Do not interject whether you think it should be important or not.

10. Sit with your response. Don’t be afraid to call it a day. Sometimes we think that we have to resolve everything in one conversation. Ask the other person if you can have some time to think it over. However, be sure to schedule the follow up discussion right then and there, if possible or shortly thereafter, so that it doesn’t come across as avoidance or a delay tactic.

11. Thank the person for initiating the conversation. You may remember that Rule #2 in the Three Rules About Feedback is that “Feedback is a gift.” Hearing about it today when you can fix it is much better than never hearing about it or having surface in a lesser-desired manner or as a black mark on your annual performance review.

12. Bring the conversation back up in the next 48 hours. If you promised to revisit the issue or rectify the problem, be sure to do so. Show the other person that you have made positive changes to correct the issue or problem. This time it is your turn to initiate the conversation. Share what you have learned. Make changes to the process, if applicable, so that the mistake will not happen again.

In addition, be careful not to harbor grudges, hold stamps or somehow withdraw from the relationship. The goal of lowered defensiveness is to better the working relationship, not harm it. If you find yourself wanting to avoid this person, then review the steps again to see where you got stuck. Don’t be surprised if it is on Step 6. It’s hard to hold on to defensiveness when we take responsibility and are accountable for our actions.

Finally, it seems to me that today’s workplace environment is filled with complaints of too much work and too little time, reduced staff and limited resources. So, is it really a surprise to find miscommunication, unclear expectations and errors? After all, can your organization afford to have its top leaders focused on the blame game instead of solving the problem at hand? If you took all the effort involved in defending a position and applied it to solving the immediate issue and improving the process/system, wouldn’t that be a better use of time and resources?


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