Diffusing Defensiveness – Building Better Behaviors!

As a tactical leader, the ability to diffuse escalating tension, anger, conflicts and defensive behaviors that result in lost performance is critical. Whether through a peer or leadership position, diffusing defensive behavior can serve to create a significantly healthier workplace.

While most individuals have evolved into a norm of defending their ideas, positions and needs, it also has become an acceptable practice to challenge these when one disagrees. To diffuse possible escalation in emotions and counter-productive behaviors, consider low impact, high yield tactics:

  1. Restating – Take the sentence that has been challenged – or personalized by the other party as a challenge – and restate it, while remaining entirely “issue/subject” centered. Example: “What I am hearing is that (insert subject) is a concern for us. Should we discuss that?”
  1. Reframe With Ownership Language – Use words that appear less challenging and don’t appear to be singling out or pointing at the other person. Use words that invite the other party into a participatory dialogue: we, us, team. 
  1. Avoid Challenge Language – The unfortunate tendency in decaying behaviors is the use of challenge words and phrases. These would be the words used in visual, auditory and kinesthetic interactions that infer one person is better than another. They frequently come across as a direct attack. Words like “however,” “you,” “but” and “seem to” turn up the pressure to defensive behaviors (a great source on these ideas is Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Ellison, ISBN #0-9720021-0-3 / US $15.95, Bay Tree Publishing, 721 Creston Road, Berkeley, CA, 94708).
  1. Remain Behavior-Focused – In responding to the other person, ensure that all your words, gestures and phrasings remain focused on the “behavior” that is at hand and not the actual person. Example: “I’m not challenging you nor making a statement about you in terms of good or bad. Rather, I think we should address the choice that was made…” Another example could be, “I’m not saying you are right nor wrong, good nor bad; we are hear to address the comments that are being made, which are counter productive to our purpose …”
  1. Model – Make sure you look in that imaginary mirror of life and continually ask yourself, “What does my behavior project to my team, colleagues and customers?” People do tend to model the behaviors of not just others, but the behaviors they see the most and those that are most frequently rewarded!
  1. Gambit – As a strategic maneuver to position yourself for a greater gain, you may need to either sacrifice a little to get a lot for the greater benefit of the team or buy time for a calming affect, allowing emotions and defensive behaviors to settle down. You may deploy a move such as, “Excuse me for a minute while I go to the bathroom.” Of course, you may not need to actually go to the bathroom, but this break will allow you – and perhaps the other party – an unplanned opportunity to calm down, become less personality-focused and become more issue-focused!

Other sources of gambits could be time, other subjects, other people and places.

  1. Association – Encircle a potentially problem player with only proactive, constructive, optimistic individuals. This overwhelming force will serve either as a soothing behavior adjuster or a motivation for them to leave you, which may be something you actually desire!
  1. Get Out of the Presenter’s Box – I have presented this explosive behavior- diffusing technique before. The space you occupy when presenting an idea is the imaginary “presenter’s box.” The moment someone challenges you, the tendency is to defend your turf, which only escalates defensive, non-productive behaviors. The next time someone challenges your idea, use this technique: calmly step to the side (out of the box), and when the challenger is finished, politely respond by saying, “If this idea is not an ideal way to proceed, let’s explore some other options. What do you feel is an effective way to address this?”
  1. Plurality of Ideas – When finding yourself at odds with another person, transition the dialogue away from both of your present defensive items and inquire about other ideas. Example: “Aside from the subjects in which we disagree, what are some other ways we could address this issue?”
  1. Empathize – Offer an empathy-based preface to your logic-based response. An empathy statement conveys to the other party that you respectfully hear them. You are not agreeing nor disagreeing with them, but merely acknowledging their stance. Research finds that sometimes a person’s behavior and the escalation in their behavior is a learned response or tactic to gain leverage or recognition with others. By you immediately acknowledging the other person, this may many times serve as a diffusing approach.
  1. Defer to Another Authority – Sometimes, no matter what your approach, you and the other person are not going to interact effectively. To reduce and occasionally eliminate defensive behaviors, consider if the need for the interaction (subject matter) is greater than the need for you being the engager. If the answer is yes, change the players. Become the leader that is resident within you and have someone else be the facilitator for the sake of performance success.

As a tactical leader, the ability to diffuse escalating tension, anger, conflicts and defensive behaviors will result in increased performance and profitability in your business unit. Residual benefits of diffusing defensive behaviors in your organization will also be seen in the quality of life and a greater sense of balance that everyone experiences.

-Dr Jeff Magee
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http://JeffreyMagee.com

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