Overcoming Defensiveness

Don’t let defensiveness ruin your career or business. Here are some tips to help you get it under control.

Do you think most everyone is out to get you? Do you treat simple questions as accusations? Do you feel all that matters is being right? And, even when others say they’re sorry, do you find it hard to let go and forgive?

You may be spending too much time in the “Red Zone”–a defensive state of mind that suggests you don’t always work and play well with others.

Everyone gets defensive–it’s human nature. But when defensiveness reaches the boiling point in frequency and intensity, it can destroy relationships and damage personal and career success.

Where defensiveness comes from
Defensiveness is your body’s way of keeping you comfortable. It blocks bad feelings–though it doesn’t make them go away. In fact, the only way to make those feelings and defenses go away is to let them wash over you. Don’t respond right away; just feel. Then move on–before you say something sarcastic, point a finger, or whine “poor me.”

Defense mechanisms are part of your personal history. From childhood on, they emerge as you learn to cope–for better or for worse–with stress. And when the going gets really tough, they take on a life of their own–becoming a suit of armor to “protect” you.

Who, me?
Think back to the last time you snapped at someone, withdrew into a deadly silence, or played the blame game. Yup, you were behaving defensively.

So the next time you’re tempted to do the defensive dance, notice and name the behavior you’re about to engage in. Admitting you have an issue with defensiveness is the first step to overcoming the problem.

Cueing into your feelings
The second step to defusing defensiveness is to cue in to your feelings and emotions before you snap. When your hackles go up, notice how your body responds physically: Your breathing quickens, your heart races, or you suddenly feel hot or cold.

What to do? When your hot buttons get pushed–and you are poised to pounce–hit “pause” instead. Then decide to use your head to deal with the matter.

Knowing your defenses
Recognizing your knee-jerk defenses can help you red-flag them before damage is done. Check out the list below for a dozen of the most common defense mechanisms. If you can’t identify with any of them, “denial” may be your personal number-one.

  • Sarcasm
  • Rigidity
  • Blaming
  • Shaming
  • Teaching
  • Preaching
  • Catastrophizing
  • Trivializing
  • Endless explaining
  • Withdrawing into silence
  • Loss of humor
  • All-or-nothing thinking

Turning red into green

When you feel yourself getting defensive, choose to turn your Red Zone attitudes into “Green Zone” actions:

  • Slow down. Pause. Take a breath or–even better–take a walk. Deliberately slowing down your physical and emotional reactions is a sure-fire way to defuse defensiveness.
  • Detach. You know what pushes your hot buttons, so cut off your usual response at the pass. Instead of shooting a sarcastic comeback, ask a question. Instead of “brain dumping,” shut up and listen. And, instead of freezing up, open up and tell others how you feel.
  • Stop dissing yourself. Pessimistic thoughts–“I can’t do this” or “I look like an idiot”–only make matters worse. Catch yourself when the self-talk turns negative and consciously make it positive: “I can deal with this” or “I can take care of myself.” Positive thoughts really do lead to positive actions.
  • Start over. When your personal early warning system flashes “Danger: Red Zone Ahead,” minimize the damage and begin again. Give yourself a “do-over”–a second chance to ditch the defensiveness and move forward into a friendlier future.

Copyright 2005 James W. Tamm. All rights reserved.

Jim Tamm, a workplace expert specializing in building collaborative work environments, is co-author of Radical Collaboration (HarperBusiness). Contact him at www.radicalcollaboration.com.

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