Overcoming Defensiveness for Effective Collaboration
 
 

An individual who is a go-getter – always on the offensive – is considered the iconic worker in today's workforce. He or she is the success story. The go-getter is the person everyone wants to emulate so they can be at the top of their game. But what some people tend to forget is the old sports adage – "sometimes the best offense is a great defense." The flip side of the coin is there are times when defense is terrible for the offense. The trick for everyone to learn -- whether it's in marriage, work, or everyday life – is when to take the offense or choose defense as the best offense. A person should never choose to be only defensive since this shuts down their abilities to think anything through to a positive outcome.

Being defensive hinders a person's ability to make rational decisions –it's especially a hindrance for obtaining needed information from others, since the defensive individual's whole body is stern, uncompromising, and unyielding. Self-preservation has taken over the defensive person's total being, and reality has been distorted. This makes it imperative for the individual entering into a defensive person's territory to be cautious, wise, and to use a diplomatic approach.

The decision of when to take the offense, and when to take the defense as offense were critical decisions for Leslie Moonves, CEO for CBS, who also oversees Showtime. For more than a year, he had to tiptoe around historical rivalries and a long history of bad blood between the Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquio camps. His soft approach helped the two camps come to terms for a fight boxing fans have been wanting for more than five years. Besides the seemingly bad blood between the two fighters' representatives, there was the issue of Mayweather having an exclusive deal with Showtime, and Pacquio with HBO. Moonves had to first get the two camps to talk with each other, which meant assuring both sides they were not going to "get one over the other." In this phase of the talks Moonves was using defense as an offense. He also had to take the offense at times during the negotiation, especially when reminding them this is a fight everyone wants and that each one of them could make it happen. In the end he won collaboration from the fighter's camps, all the major networks, promoters, etc. This is the type of positive results everyone can have when collaboration is used properly and defenses are overcome.

At some point in life, everyone has faced an individual who has lashed out, when all you wanted was a simple answer to a question. They get mad, instantly raise their voice, and sometimes even storm off, leaving you wondering what you said to tick them off. It's not what you said but rather, it's how they perceived what was said. They are being defensive. For collaboration to be a success, individuals must learn how to defuse a person, without setting off their defense mechanism.

Two Steps to Being Cautious

First, realize that everyone has a defensive nature – it's a human trait, like the shape of your face or a bubbly personality. Getting defensive is a part of a person's human nature, because it is a way to protect you from being hurt. It is a force field – a shield of protection. It's a way to immediately deal with a situation you perceive as being bad. The first problem with this is the situation and circumstances are still there – nothing has been solved. The second problem with consistently maintaining this viewpoint is the individual can wreck relationships and literally ruin their job or career – no one wants to work with them, much less socially be around them.

Secondly, when approaching someone you know is highly defensive, it is best to immediately use defense as your offense. Defensive people perceive feedback that has even the slightest connotation of negativity as being completely negative. They literally see the problem as the Swiss Alps, instead of a tiny ant hill. With that in mind, it is best to approach the person being 100 percent positive at the beginning of the conversation. Let's say you are the manager of a car dealership. A salesperson on your staff has consistently made a clerical error on their paperwork that your administrator has had to correct each and every time that individual sells a car. It's not a huge thing, but it is a mistake that has gotten aggravating over time. Instead of walking in and telling the salesperson they are making a mistake, the manager walks into the salesperson's office and compliments them on how many cars they are selling. He asks what their tactics are for producing so many sales, and once again, compliments the person on a fine job. Then, "Oh by the way, my administrator noticed you had a slight error on your paperwork last time. Instead of checking this box, she said you should fill in this blank. I'm sure it was a simple oversight – no big deal. Thanks for doing such a great job here." That is using defense as your offense.

In marriage, if one partner is defensive, it generally triggers defense mechanisms in the other, which translates into what most married couples call: spats, yap-yap, fights, arguments, and generates statements such as: "I hate you;" I'm leaving you and going back home;" or, "I'm tired of fighting, just leave." But it honestly doesn't have to be this way at home, either. All it takes is for one spouse to recognize the other is being defensive -- and instead of being the devil, which is how we truly feel at that particular moment because of the attack, we respond by being an angel, so the situation can be quickly diffused. What both partners need to realize and understand is why the defense mechanism was triggered in the first place, and address the problem when both sides are level headed.

In both situations, one of the key ingredients to maintaining the peace is to make the defensive individual feel safe. This means showing a little compassion and letting the person know everything really is fine, and you should not feel like you are being attacked, criticized, or blamed for anything. Make sure the individual knows they can listen to what you have to say, because they are not being blamed for doing something wrong.

Steps to Diffusing Your Defense Mechanisms

To know how to diffuse your defensive personality, you must first take a look at yourself in the mirror. This isn't easy for many people, because it shows your vulnerabilities. You have to look at your buried weaknesses, or you might have to re-examine old battle scars and the situations that created them. You first must admit you have the scars, and you must be willing to let the hurt go. This could lead you to feeling vulnerable again, but holding on to the hurt has been eating away at you from the inside and has started revealing itself in your defensive stance. Sometimes the wounds take time to heal and for others the best thing to do is admit you were hurt and create steps to mitigate the circumstances that brought about the hurt.

With that much of the understanding done, the next part is to ask a few simple questions that must be honestly answered.

  • What triggers your defense mode – a key phrase, a type of attitude, or is it a specific situation, figurehead, or personality?

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  • What approach do you take to problem solving?

  • Are you scared of what others will think of you in certain situations – playing games, speaking your opinion, giving out suggestions when brainstorming, or even in social interactions at a banquet or party?

  • In general, how well do you interact with others?

The key to answering these types of questions is to learn your reactions in these given situations. These answers start you down the road of understanding – understanding how and why you react in any given situation. Understanding what triggers your defenses, and what helps you to become better at controlling your resistant mechanisms. Signs you are becoming "brain dead" and defensive in a situation include:

  • Diarrhea of the mouth defending your actions

  • No humor, or too much humor, to hide true feelings

  • Getting the last word

  • Smugness that "I am right"

  • Playing the extremes – too nice, too ugly, too quiet, too loud, too eccentric

  • Sarcastic

  • Seeking sympathy with fake illness or injury

  • Raised blood pressure, racing heart, sweaty or clammy hands

  • Confusion and unable to think straight

  • Seeking comfort in substances – food, drink, drugs

  • Hiding – feelings of wanting to dig a hole and bury yourself, or the urge to sleep the day away

  • Becoming critical of others

At times, any of these can apply to anyone. The key to understanding is for the defensive person to identify the top two or three signs and then have pre-planned methods for dealing with those reactions. First, realize you may never alleviate these feelings, but your defenses can become easier to manage with practice and time.

Once the symptoms have appeared, do not suppress them – do not fight them down. Let them flow over you, but keep your mouth shut and allow your mind to realize they are there. Being forewarned of the emotion means you can also forearm yourself, so your defenses do not trigger a machine gun outburst you will regret. If this requires you to excuse yourself for a moment to go to the bathroom and splash cold water on your face – do so. This type of reaction mitigates some of the adrenaline that is coursing through your veins in response to your defensive triggers. Or, if this means taking a sip of water or coffee, then do it. If this means a moment of silence might pass between you and the other individual, let the silent moment take place.

This is where your pre-planned reactions take place. This is where you need a definite, but sensible, plan of action – a relaxing type of mental exercise, self-distraction through the sip of water, or a thought process you can enter into that clears your head and brings you back into a positive, calm thought process. Once it has passed, clear your throat and your mind, and then ask for a clarification of what they just said that triggered your defenses. This time, listen with an open mind and take their message in a positive light.

This sounds easy and for some, it will be easy, while for others, this process will be worse than pulling teeth -- it will be downright difficult. Sometimes the best approach is to take the offense and explain some of the details to a trusted co-worker, friend, or spouse, so they have an understanding of the situation. Sometimes they may have a suggestion that can help. The least thing that will come from the disclosure is they have a better understanding when approaching you on certain topics.

There is a saying about assumptions, and well, the polite way to say it is many times your assumptions can make you look like a hardheaded donkey. Charging into a meeting "thinking" you know everyone's stance/ability/contribution/opinion/decisions on a critical project can be dangerous and leave you in defense mode mumbling apologies. Before imitating a bull in a china shop or offering everyone in the conference room a piece of your mind, question your assumptions and give your various answers a positive analysis. Even if your assumptions turn out to be true, having analyzed them will give you a positive plan of action. At the least, you will be prepared for how others could react in the meeting. By planning you have given yourself maneuverability and have taken active steps to mitigate the negative effects resulting from the meeting.

What you have done is created an atmosphere where collaboration can take place. You have replaced your normal unresponsiveness from sitting in the meeting wishing people dead, and telling yourself how stupid this meeting is, to actually listening to what people are talking about and offering contributing comments. That is collaboration and it is a win-win situation. You win, because now you are a part of something bigger than yourself and the organization – or even a marriage -- wins because it has a productive individual contributing to its success.