October 19, 2021

Reversing the Curse of Defensiveness

Woman Getting DefensiveThere are many people out there in the world who are overly sensitive and become defensive at the slightest suggestion of criticism.  I know…I’ve been there.  I think it took me about 40 years to learn that I could make a mistake and it did not land on the front page of the New York Times and the world certainly did not come to an end.   I have had to learn through the years that I had to make mistakes, receive feedback about the mistakes and push through that failure process without becoming defensive.

I believe I heard Deepak Chopra once urge us to do everything you can to not defend your point of view, because when you have no point to defend, you will prevent an argument from erupting.  While we all have the right to engage in open debate and open dialogue, when we become defensive, we are basically telling others that we are not open to criticism.

If you are living with the curse of defensiveness,  you may know it, but trust me…others REALLY know it!  Their perception of you is that:

You are someone who:

  • Makes excuses or rationalizations for failures
  • Is not open to criticism
  • Blames other people for your problems
  • Shoots the messenger
  • Lives in total denial about mistakes and shortcomings
  • Does not benefit from any type of feedback

To reverse the curse of defensiveness takes time but can be reversed with a few strategies:

1.  A formal 360 degree feedback:  Many times, people shy away from giving a defensive leader feedback, because they may get pounced when delivering the feedback.  By taking a more clinical approach using a 360 degree written assessment and delivering the results using someone who is trained to deliver feedback, you can hear the truth…both the good and the bad without feeling attacked.

2.  Once you have received your feedback, share it with your peers, bosses and employees.  This is the best way to show others that your defensive wall is starting to crumble.  By telling others about what you learned in the 360 (the good, the bad and the ugly), you show courage and you can actually ask for help from your team.  I have used this approach with many leaders, and it does work.  Like magic, other team members step forward and begin to discuss their shortcomings with you in return.

3.  When receiving feedback, be quiet and sleep on it.  When we receive criticism from someone, our knee jerk reaction is often to just start fighting back and defending our positions.  The best response (believe it or not) is to say “Thank you for caring enough to share this with me”, then bite your tongue, go splash water on your face and sleep on the feedback.  When you are ready to discuss the feedback in a calm, collaborative conversation, go back to the person to ask for more feedback on how you can reverse this flaw.

4.  Make peace with someone you consider to be your enemy.  We all have them…people that we don’t want to talk to or ever see again, because somewhere along the way, we received feedback that we did not want to hear.  Go to that person, make peace with them, and dig deeper for more information.

5.  Ask for people to tell you about your blind spots.  We all have blind spots.  Blind spots are areas in life or career where we think we are strong, but we are actually weak.  Ask people about these blind spots and shift the blind spots to known weaknesses.    If you have ever had spinach on a front tooth, and no one told you about it, later on, you feel like a fool!  Or…you think you are a great singer, so you always volunteer to sing a song at every party.  The reality is that you are a horrible singer, and you are tone deaf, and you need to know about these blind spots.  Once you know about where you have a weaker thread, you can stop viewing it as an asset and begin to work on it.  I don’t condone focusing on weaknesses, but this is a bit different.  I am suggesting that you find out about your blind spots so that you can shift them into something that you can actually work with.

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