Transform Your Workplace Ep. 03 – How to Handle Defensiveness in the Workplace

Transform Your Workplace Ep. 03 – How to Handle Defensiveness in the Workplace

Many of us avoid direct, potentially difficult conversations because we worry about how others will respond to them. Despite our best efforts to be positive, sometimes when we’re honest with someone about their work, they misunderstand our intentions and end up frustrated, angry, or sad. That doesn’t feel good—for either person.

As a result of these encounters, a lot of us learn to avoid speaking out and asking for what we need from our colleagues. But no one can read our minds. The only way to reach some level of understanding between you and another person is to take the risk and have the conversation.

While you can’t control others’ responses, there are some actions you can take to increase your chances of having a productive conversation and finding common ground:

1. Lead with positive intentions.

That means before you even begin the conversation, you need to identify those intentions. What is the real purpose behind your communication? If it is to control or “rescue” the other person, or to take out your frustration, then it’s best to postpone your chat or just not have it at all. If your intention is to seek understanding and develop a relationship, then proceed with honesty and clarity about your purpose.

Example: “I can see that you may be feeling overwhelmed and unsupported. My intention is not to make things harder for you or add stress. I am checking in to understand what needs to be done so I can offer my support and help ensure we meet our deadline.”

2. Watch for signs of defensiveness, but don’t be offended by them.

There’s a good chance the other person’s defensive responses aren’t even about you. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, every now and then, we all bring to work various stressors that may or may not have to do with our jobs.

But even if the other person is reacting negatively to you and what you’re saying, don’t match their defensiveness with more defensiveness. That conversation will go nowhere.

If the other person seems uncomfortable or emotional while you’re talking, pause your message for a moment. Take a second to show that you understand their concern, and then restate your intentions for the conversation.

3. Demonstrate understanding.

Show the other person that you understand their point of view. Let them say what’s on their mind, too. Remember: this is a conversation, not a lecture. If you feel yourself getting heated in response, it’s best to come back to the issue later.

Example: “I’m here to help you. If you’re feeling under-resourced, what might be some other options?”

4. Clarify your intentions.

When you’re wrapping up, no matter how the conversation went, reiterate that you’re always considering their best interests, too.

Example: “Let’s get a plan together for how we are going to get this done. Then you and I can split up the remainder of work. We’re in this together.”

Watch Episode 03 of Transform Your Workplace



BONUS: Watch the full role play of Suzi Alligood resolving the defensiveness demonstrated by Brandon Laws


PS – We can teach your employees how to resolve defensive conversations, so that employees are having productive conversations and your culture thrives. Check out Xenium’s web courses, in-person workshops, or contact us regarding onsite training for your entire staff.

Suzi Wear

A valued member of Xenium’s Senior Leadership team, Suzi gives clients the guidance they need to be better employers. With over 18 years of experience in human resource management, Suzi has provided her expertise to clients across a wide range of industries, including manufacturing, nonprofit, retail and professional services. As VP of People Development and Culture, Suzi oversees Xenium’s training and development programs, regularly leading workshops and seminars for business owners, managers and human resource professionals throughout the Northwest.