When we get defensive, we make it that much harder for our conversational counterparts to hear what we’re saying. We also make it harder to really listen to what they have to say. Soon, we’re shadow-boxing, defending ourselves against attacks that aren’t real, and wasting energy — and relationship capital — on damage control instead of solving the problem at hand.
This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review.
If you get hooked into defensiveness — and most of us do — you probably already know it. It’s likely come up in conversations with your boss or your spouse. And when it did, you probably got defensive about being defensive. After all, it felt like you were being attacked! What else were you supposed to do?
Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a procedure I call “three strikes and you’re in.” After someone has said something that causes you to arch your back and want to become defensive:
Think of the first thing you want to say or do and don’t do that. Instead, take a deep breath. That is because the first thing you want to do is defend yourself against what you perceive as an attack, slight, or offence.
Think of the second thing you want to say or do and don’t do that, either. Take a second breath. That is because the second thing you want to do after being attacked is to retaliate. That is only going to escalate matters.
Think of the third thing you want to say or do and then do that. That is because once you get past defending yourself and retaliating, you have a better chance of seeking a solution.
The main reason to stop getting defensive is that it usually triggers the same response in the other person. If instead you look for ways to be more solution-oriented, you will soon find yourself on your way to more cooperation and collaboration. If you’re struggling with what that non-defensive, non-retaliatory, solution-oriented statement might be, focus on being a “plusser.” A plusser is someone who listens to what the other person says and then builds on it.
One way of plussing is to use the phrase, “Say more about ______.” Think of the words they used that had the most emphasis and invite them to say more about that topic. You will buy yourself time to think and calm down, let your counterpart feel heard, and disarm a counterpart who has bad intentions. Another way to do it is to say, “If we do that, what would be the next step to keep it going?” or “If we do this, what would be the way to get the most out of it?”
Similarly, you can replace “yes, but” with “yes, and.” As you probably know, when you say, “yes, but” they hear, “Everything up to now was just being polite and should be disregarded; now I’m going to tell you what the real deal is and you better pay attention.” (Isn’t it amazing how “yes, but” can mean so much more?). “Yes, and” validates what has been said — and adds to it. For example, “Yes, that’s a good point and to make it work even better…” or “Yes, I heard everything you said and help me figure out the way to make sure it gets incorporated…”
If you often find yourself in defensive conversations where you can’t figure out why you’re arguing — if you find yourself frequently saying, “Hey, I think we actually agree here…” — you might be guilty of saying “yes, but” when you actually mean “yes, and.” But what if the person is genuinely unfairly attacking you? What if they’ve said something you really believe is untrue — you can’t say “yes and,” or “say more about ____” in that case, can you?
In that case, you might try a “controlled confrontation./” You do this by pausing after they speak for a full count of three in your head. This will both take the conversation away from escalating and may cause the other person to become nervous. If they do, that will work in your favour. When you don’t take the bait, they are in unfamiliar territory and this can have a slightly disarming effect. At that point, look them squarely, calmly, and firmly in the eye and say, “Whoa! Let’s each take a breath here because I am feeling very reactive and I know until I calm down a bit, whatever I say or do now will only make this conversation worse. And I am not going to do that.”
Then take that breath and say, “OK, what’s clear to me is that something is frustrating you. What, in your mind’s eye, would you like me to do to make that frustration go away? If it’s doable and fair to you and me and everyone it affects and in their best interest, I think I’ll be happy to oblige. If however it isn’t fair or in everyone’s best interest, I’m going to have a problem going along with it.” Then be quiet, let them respond, and if it doesn’t seem fair and in everyone’s best interest say, “I’m having some difficulty understanding how that will be fair to everyone and in their best interests. Perhaps you can explain otherwise or we can brainstorm on how to make it so.”
By being unflappable and standing up for the principles of fairness, and reason, and mutual best interest, you will be better able to stand up for what’s right — and stand up to them in a way that is neither defensive or provoking.
Mark Goulston, MD, FAPA, is a business psychiatrist, executive consultant, keynote speaker and co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership. He is the author of Just Listen and co-author of Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In (Amacom, 2013). Contact him here.