How to Talk to People at Work … Without Putting Them on the Defensive

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avoiding defensive responses at workDefensiveness is a natural tendency we all have for protecting ourselves from criticism. It is normal to be defensive. But getting defensive or causing defensiveness in others hinders progress. So it’s important to help minimize these reactions by planning a more thoughtful approach.

Picture yourself heading into a co-worker’s office. You want her to change the way she’s been providing updates to you. You’ve studied the situation and have some suggestions that shouldn’t cause her any additional work. But, you know she’s been handling this transfer of information the same way for years and she’s got a reputation of non-compromise.

minimize defensivenessWhat’s the best way to approach her so you’ll have more chance of success? Is there a way to word what you need that will make it more palatable?

Critical conversations with co-workers and bosses don’t have to lead to defensiveness or conflict.

When the initiator of these conversations takes time to carefully plan the conversation, the chance for success is much higher.

These suggestions from and schwarzassociates deserve consideration for the workplace:

  1. interview for internal job openingStart with an open mind. Consider the possibility that you might change your mind. Also consider that what you’ve heard about this person might be wrong and that he or she may be open to change if approached respectfully. Enter the conversation with curiosity … trying to understand why something is happening or how the current system came to be. Let the person know that you’re open to his or her input.
  2. State an observation. Avoid blaming, character assassinations or generalizations. “Suzie, I know you’re set in your ways, but …” is just starting trouble. “I” statements sound less critical. “Suzie, the weekly updates have been getting to me later and later and the format makes it hard for the client. I have some ideas I’d like to discuss and I’d love to hear any ideas you might have for making this better for our clients.”
  3. Describe how it’s affecting you. If your co-worker’s procedure is causing extra work for you or affecting customers, let her know. “Right now, the format I get has to be manipulated …”
  4. defensive responses at workDon’t include anonymous opinions. Steer clear of giving the impression that unknown others agree with you. Saying something like: “A lot of us feel this would be a better approach” can cause defensiveness. The person will feel ganged up on by these mysterious “others” with whom she can’t defend herself.
  5. Request a change in a positive way. Let your co-worker know how things can be done differently to help you or your customers. “If I could get the updates in another format on the first of the month, the process would be faster.” State what you want in one sentence so it’s clear and easy to understand. And don’t rehash what you don’t want … stick to what you do want.
  6. If you get a defensive response, stay curious. Ask the person about their reaction. “Suzie, I noticed that I’m upsetting you and I don’t mean to. Is there some background that I’m missing that you want to share so I understand your ideas on this?”

Learning how to talk with people in a way that doesn’t make them defensive is not easy, because defensiveness is hardwired in our brains. It is not a dysfunction, suggests And since you can’t change someone else’s reaction, you must focus on your own delivery.defensiveness at work


Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.