Staying off the Defensive

Nothing goes well at work when people’s egos are overly involved. Problem resolution delays, ongoing communications breakdowns and unresolved conflicts are often caused by bruised egos.

We’re not talking swaggering, arrogant egos. We mean hurt egos that cause self-protective behaviour that can hamper an organization’s effectiveness.

When a worker feels anger, resentment, envy or other emotions, his or her otherwise healthy ego may suffer leading to defensive behaviour. This is understandable, but generally ineffective – indeed harmful – in the workplace.

When workers find themselves thinking defensive thoughts such as: “I don’t have to take this”, “I’m outta here”, “Who do they think they are”, “Nobody appreciates what I do”, “Why do I have to put up with this”, “They can’t get anything done” or “I can’t believe he’d say that” – their ego has become a problem.

When the ego gets banged-up, objectivity can get lost and staff members start to take things too personally. When this happens, defensive reactions, ranging from verbal attacks to passive aggressive behaviours to outright avoidance of a conflict can occur. And these responses help no one.

The challenge here is that collaborating, solving problems or handling conflict at work requires the exact opposite of defensive, ego-protecting behaviour: it requires non- defensive communication skills.

These skills are essential when an ego gets clobbered as can happen during stressful times at work (e.g., during a faltering project, misunderstandings of one sort or another, or threats to people’s jobs or feelings of competence).

There are six strategies, based on the work of Theodora Wells author of “Keeping Your Cool Under Fire: Communicating Non-defensively”, that activate effective non- defensive communication during times of stress and conflict at work. They may not come naturally at first, but with practice, will benefit the organization – and you!

1. Disengage and Focus On Work.
When confronted with a problem at work, it is important to identify what the best outcome for the situation is. For instance, your goal may be getting a project off the ground on time, without delays that might otherwise affect your client. Avoid vengeful thoughts or the temptation to prove you’re right. And don’t suffer in silence. These are examples of ego-based results rather than work-based results.

2. Empathize and Avoid Reacting.
It can be extraordinarily difficult to empathize with people we don’t like, or have had problems with. It might even appear counter-intuitive, especially when staff would rather fight or avoid the individual. You may be thinking, why would you want to look at the situation through your nemesis’ eyes when that person is the source of the problem.

But empathy is an effective technique. Focussing on what a colleague might be feeling helps you forget to take things personally. Empathy can help encourage objectivity and give you a better perspective on the situation. It’s worthwhile trying to understand why another individual would behave in a particular way.

For example, Emily’s business results may be down because of her divorce, Joe may have gone on the attack at the meeting because he felt his competence had been called into question or Sue didn’t buy into an idea because she feels overloaded with work.

Second, once another’s feelings are understood, that person is more inclined to warm up and engage in problem solving rather than having an ego-based conversation. For instance, when asking Joe about his aggressive behaviour in the meeting, you may wish to assume that he might have been feeling under attack himself about the job he did.

3. Inquire and Be Curious.
Engage in a bit of investigative reporting. Getting perspective and being objective requires an inquiring mind. Ask questions that reveal the underlying issues and concerns. Slow down, ask for clarification and express your desire to understand the situation fully. It will be appreciated.

4. Self Disclosure.
Talk about yourself, not everybody else. Use “I” statements to achieve this. Instead of saying “You just don’t listen”, try, “I feel unheard right now”. Rather than retorting “You haven’t a clue about what our department needs”, try “I feel like we’re invisible to you guys”.

When workers are upset, it is difficult to come up with statements about themselves. It’s much easier to talk about the other guy or gal and focus on their mistakes. Getting the ego out of the way means being serious about working the problem out. Ironically, focussing on your feelings without pointing fingers is the shortest way to the best result.

5. Build Bridges.
Find what you have in common with the person with whom you are in conflict. Admittedly, it’s hard on occasion to believe you could have something in common with a supposed detractor. For example, many workers find that they both have the organization’s best interests at heart but are pushing the agenda in different ways. One person may see networking as the best way to identify lapses in customer service, for instance, while another may highlight better technical systems as the key to solving the problem.

Staff may have emotional themes in common as well. Both parties in a stressful situation may feel their competency is being challenged or they both may feel unappreciated at work. Look for the places where you all have something in common, point them out and solve problems based on satisfying common needs.

6. De-personalize and Know Yourself:
Sometimes people say or do things at work that seem like a challenge to our sense of selves. If our cherished self- images are questioned, we are likely to try to protect ourselves – and get defensive. For example, we may see ourselves as ethical, competent, or generous or decisive. If one of these characteristics is called into question at work, it’s normal for the ego to prepare for battle.

Knowing our “hot spots”, or the places we are most vulnerable, is important. A worker is less likely to take things personally if he knows that feeling unappreciated is a hot spot for him. If he feels unappreciated, he knows he’s prone to defensiveness and can choose a different response. Another worker’s hot spot might be activated when she feels bossed round by a co-worker, making her defenses kick in. Recognize your hot spots and make a conscious effort not to take things personally.

Effective collaboration with work mates requires non- defensive reactions to workplace problems. That way, things don’t get personal because nobody wins when inflated egos do battle.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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