Diffusing Defensiveness – Converting Caustic Communication Exchanges into Casual Conversation!

The ability to transition caustic communication exchanges into fluid, non-threatening conversations may seem like an art form to many, but actually it is more of a science. And with science, there are truths, steps and processes that can be learned, followed and replicated for lasting success as a leader today.

Many times what one perceives as caustic are not really the words, but rather how those words are shaped and sent. Whether in your visual exchanges, verbal communications or kinesthetic, hands-on interactions, you can diffuse potentially or blatantly caustic exchanges into healthy, casual conversation by doing the following:

  1. Challenge Words – You will want to eliminate or significantly reduce the volume of challenge words you use. These are any words that imply you are pointing at the other party and thereby challenging them…this only causes the other party to become defensive. Some examples: however; but; and; you; think; opinion.
  1. Ownership Words – You can diffuse caustic behaviors and even avoid the appearance of being combative by using words that imply you are pointing at yourself. It is more difficult to get into trouble if you are pointing at or hitting yourself as opposed to pointing at, singling out or hitting another person with your communication exchanges. Some examples: we; us; team; feel.
  1. Decode the Communication Signal – Studies indicate that communication exchanges with another person consist of three distinct pieces. It is within these pieces that one can determine where the caustic force is.  Once isolated, one can direct the conversation toward success and away from stress. Your brain will interpret the most information from the non-verbal components (the “WHY Factor”) and the least from the actual words or message (the “WHAT Factor”). The middle percentage of information you will receive will come from the para-language (the “HOW Factors”).

The para-language aspect (one’s tone, pitch, pace, volume, accent, etc.) shapes how a message is perceived. In most communication exchanges, caustic interpretations come more from “HOW” a message is crafted and sent than what is actually said.

  1. Reframe – When a message irritates you and evolves toward caustic communication, evaluate the “WHAT,” “WHY” and “HOW” components of the communication you have just read or heard. Don’t overreact merely to the para-language aspect of the communication exchange.
  1. Never Respond Immediately – When you find yourself engaged in caustic communication exchanges, refrain from responding immediately. Instead, determine the best way to craft your response to the other person. This pregnant pause may cause the other party to realize how out of control they are, and this may stimulate either an apology or a calming effect from the other party.
  1. Eliminate Caustic E-mail Language – In addition to avoiding “Challenge Words” in an e-mail, eliminate caustic communication blunders as well. These include bold face type, all capitals, italicized type, underlining, highlighting in red ink, etc. These variables are para-language in a written format and can be perceived as caustic communication.
  1. Visualize A Mental Teeter-Totter – While engaging a person in a situation containing caustic communication, visualize their forehead with a teeter-totter on it. As you look at them, observe a plank atop the teeter-totter. On one side is a plus sign, which represents everything you know about them that would direct their attention in a favorable manner; on the other side of the beam, visualize a negative sign. Obviously, if they are communicating in a caustic manner, you can visualize which way their beam is leaning and avoid doing anything that would further weigh them, and thus the conversation, in a negative manner.

You will want to diffuse them by working first to neutralize that beam and continuing your communication intervention in a constructive, non-caustic direction. This will, in many instances, serve to recondition the other party, and they will begin to model your communication behavior.

This tactical approach can serve you well, change how others perceive you and change how others interact with one another. As a tactical leader, these are the varying engagement styles you will want to emulate for greater personal and professional effectiveness on a daily basis.

-Dr Jeff Magee
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