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Are You Being Defensive?

Taking offense can send the wrong message and work against you.

I was working with a team that was under considerable stress preparing for an important presentation to their boss’s boss. Tensions were high but most of the team members were channeling their anxiety into heightened focus and greater discipline. With this energy, things were coming together nicely.

And then the pressure got to one of them. From my perspective, the team was giving this person the same kind of feedback they had given to everyone else, but he took it personally. His body language started to show his frustration and he finally came out with the telltale sign that he had become defensive. You know the one, right? He said, in a voice a little louder than normal: "I’m NOT being defensive!"

Defensiveness sends terrible signals. When you indulge in it, you’re likely to be seen as insecure, closed-minded and overly emotional. None of these labels is going to help you be successful or build stronger relationships.

It’s important to be frank with yourself about your reaction to others' feedback. Answer the following questions as honestly as you can. If you’re really courageous, send them to a trusted colleague or friend and get their take as well.

Here goes: Do you notice the following?

  1. The voice in my head runs through a list of reasons why negative feedback isn’t true.
  2. I start talking quickly and run through a series of points without taking a breath.
  3. I stop listening to what my teammates are saying.
  4. I find justifications for my work that have nothing to do with my capability or the effort I put in (“You didn’t give me enough time,” “Bob didn’t send me his stuff”).
  5. My heart starts to race when I get feedback, especially if it’s in a group setting.
  6. I begin my response to feedback with the word but.
  7. I respond to a criticism about my work with a criticism about someone else’s work (“Juan’s presentation was worse than mine!”).
  8. I use sarcasm to deflect the feedback or to get a laugh at my teammate’s expense.
  9. I cross my arms and close my body off to the person providing feedback.
  10. I smile and nod in hopes that the person will stop.

Being defensive is a sign that you’re in fight-or-flight mode, and that’s not a place where you can accomplish anything constructive. Learn to read your own signals so you can nip your defensive reaction in the bud. Suppress it with deep breaths, with listening and curiosity, and with demonstrations of accountability and willingness to learn.

Getting control of your defensiveness will reduce your stress, improve the quality of conversations in your team, and ultimately improve your perceived value to the organization.

Each of those is worth the effort.

More from Liane Davey Ph.D.
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