In life and particularly in a work context, we are often faced with situations that are “uncomfortable”, situations that may show up a weakness in us, situations that call us to “give an account” of ourselves. In these moments, the human’s default programming is one of defensiveness, attempting to protect one’s value and trying to avoid experiencing uncomfortable feelings within. Being fear-based, these defence mechanisms are charged with energy and emotion and could lead to saying the wrong thing, transferring blame on others or simply denying that you could be in the wrong (your behaviour or attitude led to a non-desirable outcome). As a result of being defensive, other parties typically dig their heels in, with resultant conflict and potentially a break-down in the relationships.
When people become defensive, their thinking becomes rigid and problem-solving ability is stunted. They further create an environment for everyone else to get defensive and ineffectual as well. Defensiveness distorts our reality, causing us to spend far too much energy on self-preservation rather than on problem-solving. Defensiveness only provides temporary relief, however, as it only works for as long as one is involved with dysfunctional thinking – it does not address the deeper problem. In a sense, in fact, it is trying to hide this problem from one, attempting to protect one from dealing with it. The real issues have been carefully and skilfully obscured and the process becomes an exercise in self-deception.
Remaining non-defensive is the single most important thing you can do to increase your effectiveness when wanting to turn conflict into collaboration. James W Tamm suggested a five point plan for dealing with your own defensiveness:
- Take responsibility for yourself – acknowledge that you are becoming defensive (to yourself and ideally to those you are dealing with). If you are dealing with people that you trust, ask their help in dealing with it.
- Slow down – slowing down physically and relaxing can be useful to counteract the charge of adrenalin and its ripple effects.
- Confront your negative self-talk – be aware of your internal dialogue, confront it if needed and change it to be more constructive.
- Check your assumptions – check with the other person if the assumptions you are making about their feelings and motives are correct. People tend to get less defensive when they do this than when they automatically believe the assumptions are true.
- Detach – step back and detach your sense of worth and your identity from the specific situation and outcome so that you can see the bigger picture – here the situation loses its overriding importance.
Tamm’s “recipe” for becoming less defensive or avoiding defensiveness in totality is practical – it creates space to reflect and opportunities to grow and develop. When faced with the urge to respond to another defensively, one could ask for this space, for example: “I would really like to give an account of myself and answer your questions, but right now I know that I am going to become defensive and respond emotionally to you. Would it be possible if we could meet a little later to discuss the issues?” People respect this kind of self-control and self-awareness – they will probably respond positively and even offer suggestions of appropriate moments when the discussion can take place. Emotional intelligence and subsequently emotional maturity resonate with others – it provides a sense of order and comfort within the relationship and offers learning moments in the future.
Turning conflict into collaboration requires high levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence – the ability to understand one’s emotional responses/urges and control them in order to create the environment where the conversation can be led to a productive result. Tamm noted: “You don’t have defences, they have you”. We need to learn how to master them.