How to Defeat the Subtleties of Defensiveness
Defensiveness makes you a turtle or a tiger. Sometimes you hide your little turtle head. Other times you bare tiger teeth.
Defensiveness is eagerness to feel criticized or attacked; an inclination to see hidden agendas.
Defensiveness protects fragile egos, weakens relationships, and congeals the status quo.
Things defensive people say:
- I couldn’t help it.
- It’s your fault.
- What are you really after?
- I’m so busy. (Yes, busyness – as an excuse – is defensiveness.)
You get defensive when you feel:
- Afraid to ask for what you want.
- Guilt over weakness or failure.
- Danger of being exposed. You’re hiding something.
- Attacked. Victimhood leads to defensiveness.
How to defeat defensiveness:
#1. Know what you stand for.
When defensiveness drives response and resistance, people appear needy. Don’t apologize for driving a stake in the ground that reflects values or priorities.
Defensiveness is driven by the expectation of others. The real question is what do you expect of yourself.
#2. Express your aspirational self.
Defensiveness neglects or ignores aspiration.
Suppose you aspire to courage, competence, and compassion.
- What do courageous people say? Say that.
- What do competent people do? Do that.
- What does compassion look like in this situation? Show that.
#3. Shift from can’t to can.
Defensiveness is stuck on can’t. Say what you can do after saying what you can’t do.
I can’t do that. I can do this.
- I can’t help you right now. I can help you tomorrow.
- I can’t make the meeting. I can read the notes and offer input.
#4. Make simple requests.
Avoid complaining, criticizing, or whining before making requests.
#5. Bring solutions.
Shift from big problem to simple solution when you feel defensive.
Courage sees opportunity. Defensiveness sees problems and threats.
Defensiveness distracts attention, contaminates influence, dilutes results, and weakens relationships.
How do you see defensiveness in leadership?
How might leaders overcome defensiveness?
In most organisations, nobody cares what you stand for, and less still what you aspire to. The exception is in places where these will be compared to company blurbs or mission statements, and if they don’t align closely, people will care very much, just not in a good way.
Thanks Mitch. Always a pleasure reading your comments. I almost always smile. To go with your comment. Perhaps in most organizations people do care what you stand for – as long as you stand for something acceptable. But if you stood up for coming in late and taking long breaks you probably would notice a response. Have fun out there.
In the civilized sense that we are expected to do our jobs, Lead our troops, build the walls, etc. knowing how we fit in and where we fit in can be complex. Sometimes we have to ask the questions to get direction. So don’t have a fear of asking question or giving an answer if you are asked. The worst question is one we don’t ask. If we don’t know where to go or how to get there, we can’t drive the Train, But we can ask questions and keep things simple in the sense it’s only a question away. Be all you can be, before you can’t be.
Excellent post, Dan. All of your suggestions for defeating defensiveness are good. #1 really stuck out for me. There is a difference between defensiveness and putting a stake in the ground for your values and priorities, but they are both responses to the same thing. When we understand that someone is encroaching on our values or priorities, we have a choice of how to respond. Thanks for pointing that out.
“Don’t apologize for driving a stake in the ground that reflects values or priorities.”
I have read that among some Native American warrior societies, such as the Crow Nation’s Crazy Dogs, it was a practice, when their homes were under attack, to drive a stake into the ground and tie their left leg to the stake in order to show they had no fear while protecting the tribe. It was demonstrating their intent to prevail or die on that spot.
Of course, I have yet to see a modern leader literally do this, but figuratively it is necessary to clearly demonstrate that some “values and priorities” are going to be defended at all costs.
All great ways to overcome defensiveness. I would add #6 – find out what triggers your defensiveness and take preventive actions.
I know that there are particular situations that automatically bring up the defensiveness in me (for example when someone questions the competence of any of my team members). When such a situation occurs, I try to remove myself for a while until I am able to reframe it and react in a rational and efficient way.