Key Point: Early in my career and marriage I was a defensive expert whenever I felt challenged in a conversation. I still need to be wary of falling into this trap. I wasn’t fully aware of this behavior except retrospectively, when I tried to figure out what went wrong and why the conversation became an argument. I hadn’t really learned tools to both observe and control slipping into defensiveness. However, learning how to be non-defensive during conversations is a great life skill. And most of us learn how to effectively navigate through this feeling of being attacked or challenged through a long period of trial and error. Hopefully this blog will give you some insight and tools to deftly move conversations forward without being sidetracked by being defensive.
First of all, we need to be aware why and when we become defensive and the relationship damage it causes. When we are defensive, we usually stop listening and spend more energy defending and perhaps even retaliating. It slows us down from attending to the issue we are addressing through dialogue. And when we realize we are behaving defensively we can even get defensive about being defensive. This usually triggers the same response in the other person.
I recently read “Don’t Get Defensive: Communication Tips for the Vigilant” by Dr. Mark Goulston, and I wanted to share it with all my readers. It is excellent advice and ideally you will add the techniques cited below into your effective conversation tool-kit. I’ve added exerts into my Character Moves below.
- Learn the “three strikes and you’re in” technique. After someone has said something that causes you to arch your back and want to become defensive: Strike One – 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 offense. Strike Two – 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. Strike Three – 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.
- Learn how to become 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?”
- Learn to 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.”
Non-defensive in The Triangle
Key Point: There has always been a bit of a chasm between upper management and the front line. Distance from the corner office to the “coal face” is somewhat understandable. People in each role simply have such different environments that somewhat of a gap regarding reality seems realistic. But a recent study conducted by The Harvard Business Review (HBR), points out that the disconnection between the top and other levels of many organizations is now of Grand Canyon proportions. In fact, the editor of HBR ‘s Special Projects and Research, Angelia Herrin, presented study results at a recent conference on Employee Engagement, using a picture of this natural wonder, as a way of emphasizing that this unprecedented, jaw dropping gap has emerged. In this HBR research, executives from a large sample of respondents believe 40 percent of their employees are engaged. (Not impressive but still sadly out of touch). Yet, only 23 percent of respondents below the executive level in these same organizations see themselves as engaged. Wow! 77 percent of people see themselves as DISENGAGED at work? By a broadly understood definition, this means these self described, disengaged people are thinking of leaving, not striving to do their best work and/or have no intention of referring anyone to work for their organizations. In current, well-understood “textology,” one would be excused to exclaim… “WTH?”
More work may need to be done to fully understand all the reasons for this astonishing gap, but the following, very basic, practical solution is what I believe people want MOST. This is supported by data I’m familiar with. PEOPLE at every level, in every organization, want the RESPECT of being given reasonable AUTONOMY AND THE TOOLS, PROCESSES and SYSTEMS THEY NEED TO consistently CONTRIBUTE VALUE. When we are stuck with dumb rules, crappy tools, processes and systems that fail, we look like idiots to customers and teammates. We have to apologize, do “work arounds,” and feel like we need to make continuous excuses. After a while, when things don’t significantly improve, people quit… Usually on the job. Today things are changing so quickly, and business model performance is under such serious pressure, that executive management feels compelled to drive dramatic shifts in priorities and resources, often leaving mid-management and the frontline trying to catch up. No one is to blame and intent normally is well meaning at every level. However, the unintended outcome is a Grand Canyon gap between what executives really want/believe is occurring and what is really happening at the employee/customer interface. What can we do about reducing the canyon to at least a ravine?
- If we have a leadership position, you and I have a responsibility to REALLY understand how strategy and change is being translated to the front line. This means we have to go the actual place, with the actual people, at the actual time, to review the actual processes and actual data. The Japanese call this the FIVE ACTUALS. Then we must LISTEN and ACT. Managing by just cheerleading and stopping by for donuts isn’t good enough.
- If we have jobs at the intersection between customers and others, or mid-management roles, we cannot give up. We need to use data to shed the light on product/service breakdowns. And most importantly, frontline people usually know how things can be fixed. Be constructively relentless. Pilot better ways to show improvements and then have upper management see the results. Use your positive attributes to drive solutions not just complain to others who can’t really help much. Ask for forgiveness more than permission. You’re a critical thinking adult, not a mindless cog in a machine.
- The biggest challenge facing organizations is that VALUE FLOWS across the entire organization. It typically does not reside in one function, location or job family. So organizations have to invest more resources into horizontal process that are silo busters. But this takes leadership, political courage and a tolerance for ambiguous structures. Organizations still cling to tidy, vertical, functional organization charts. It is no longer sufficient to organize this way. How can you influence this need to manage flow? Step up and help make things flow horizontally better.
- Have an expectation you’re going to work in a place where more than 75 percent of people are ENGAGED, not DISENGAGED. If not, get out because your organization likely won’t be around in its current configuration for the long run anyway. Seriously.
FIVE ACTUALS in The Triangle,
Key Point: To be a great leader you have to be BOTH tough and nice. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman address this in their Harvard Business Review article, Nice or Tough: Which Approach Engages Employees Most? The summary below highlights the results of their research:
“Essentially, our analysis suggests, that neither approach (nice or tough) is sufficient in itself. Rather, both are needed to make real headway in increasing employee engagement. In fact, fully 68 percent of the employees working for leaders they rated as both effective enhancers and drivers scored in the top 10 percent on overall satisfaction and engagement with the organization.
Clearly, we were asking the wrong question, when we set out to determine which approach was best. Leaders need to think in terms of “and” not “or.” Leaders with highly engaged employees know how to demand a great deal from employees, but are also seen as considerate, trusting, collaborative, and great developers of people.
In our view, the lesson then is that those of you who consider yourself to be drivers should not be afraid to be the “nice guy.” And all of you aspiring nice guys should not view that as incompatible with setting demanding goals. The two approaches are like the oars of a boat. Both need to be used with equal force to maximize the engagement of direct reports”
People who have worked for me know that I ask them to stuff “20 pounds of sugar into a 10 pound bag”. I ask a lot and in almost all cases, I have found that people step up to the high bar, make great choices and do their best work. I also like to give them lots of autonomy and recognition. I am not suggesting I’m a superb example of what Zenger and Folkman’s research reinforces, but I deeply believe being tough AND nice go together.
- Respect the people who work for and/or beside you enough to demand excellence. Expect them to do their best work ever or to get out of the way. Be clear about what you want. If they can’t deliver, care enough about them to help them move on. You and they are worth it.
- Being tough helps people understand where they can improve (see my last blog). However, I have found that most people like to know what they are doing well at too. Reinforce their strengths. Frankly, it is easier to do more that we are good at than to change our shortcomings. Be a cheerleader by pointing out specific behavior and results worthy of applauding! Be a total coach.
- Be TOUGH and NICE. Be what Zenger and Folkman describe as a leader skilled enough to row with both of these oars. Cool analogy. Row with one oar and you will go nowhere. Neither will your team. Row with both.
Nice AND tough in the Triangle,
Key Point: If you learn how to present constructive feedback, in a very direct, raw, data supported, and reasoned way, you will become an even more valuable leader, partner or teammate. The world is full of mushy, oblique, smoke blowing people, who avoid constructive criticism because they fear the conflict and/or simply don’t care enough. And based on the sloppy way some people give and receive feedback, that is understandable. But when you connect with people who really know how to give and take value driven criticism you can achieve better results and at an interpersonal level, mutual respect and confidence increases.
My experience is that relationships deteriorate when people sit on “stuff.” Over time, frustration builds and the proverbial straw eventually breaks the camel’s back. Some of the most difficult bosses are those that keep you guessing how they want you to behave. You rarely get feedback, but one day, some seemingly small thing becomes explosive and the relationship slips backwards. I recently participated in a thorough assessment of very high achieving executives. While I have been involved in many of these types of evaluations, this particular process was more powerful and impactful than most. When I review what was different about this approach, the ” areas to work on” were presented to the recipients in hard hitting and direct ways by skilled professionals AND the execs receiving the insights were able to put their ample egos on the shelf, opening them selves to meaningful self-development. There was serious intent and skill all the way around.
In a great HBR article, Don’t Sugarcoat Negative Feedback, it reinforces this viewpoint: “If you want to help a person change restrict your sugarcoating to breakfast cereals. Deliver constructive feedback rapidly in its raw form. This doesn’t mean harshly; there’s a way to soften blows without delaying them if you strive to be empathic. Just never make it seem like you’re avoiding hard cold facts. All that does is make the facts seem worse than they are.”
The article goes on to provide another important insight about giving feedback that I share: “Any and all of my success as a coach is because I internalized an observation by Anais Nin: ‘We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.’ Constructive criticism and your plan(s) for having someone address the flaws you see emanate from your worldview. To have these well-intended messages hit home, you must understand your audience and tailor your feedback to their needs.”
- Prepare WHAT you’re going to say. Be respectful and empathetic by being direct, clear, and reasoned in your feedback. Support your insights with data. Point to facts and behavior. Describe impact and consequences. Being direct doesn’t mean shooting from the hip.
- Prepare HOW you are going to deliver. Present feedback for the recipient, NOT for you. Understand who you are presenting to, and determine the best way to give information and insight that demonstrates you appreciate their needs. Timing and approach requires knowing your audience.
- Present caring feedback from the perspective of GIVING the other something to meaningfully work on rather than TAKING a chunk out of their side.
No Fruit Loop Feedback in The Triangle,