A communication skill that will help you improve almost any workplace interaction is to learn how to have a conversation without defensiveness. I often hear from my clients that it is very difficult to not take things personally. It’s natural for us to think that everything another person says is about us but, in reality, what other people tell us is simply their perception.
Communication in many workplaces often transpires like this:
Person A: I wish you wouldn’t get angry at me so often.
Person B: I can’t believe you’re saying that to me after all the hard work I do for you and this department.
The standard reaction for the person on the receiving end of exchanges like this is to get upset and feel threatened or hurt by the statement so they get defensive or feel they have to fight back. When they do that the other person gets defensive and chaos ensues. The result is ineffective communication and constant conflict.
I prefer to look at what people say to me as an opportunity to understand the other person better. The next time someone says something that you normally would fight back against or that makes you feel defensive try the following strategies:
1. Think of the statement only as words and information. In this case the person said they would like to see less anger coming from you. Even if their statement has no basis in reality just look at it as their perspective. This allows you to take what the other person has said, learn something about them and think of ways to improve the situation without getting your stuff mixed up in it.
2. It’s not about right/wrong, win/lose, it’s about effective communication. Think of the statement as window into the other person’s thoughts and take the opportunity to learn about them. After all, they’re only telling you about their perception not about how they want to destroy you.
3. Ask open-ended questions to gather more information. For example: What are the reasons you think that? Listen actively and gather information only. Don’t judge, get upset or fight. Ask open-ended questions until the tone of the conversation changes from tension to calm.
4. Listen, listen, listen. Try not to comment, rebut, challenge or change the other person’s point of view no matter how much you disagree. Don’t interrupt and stay with them until the conversation becomes more tranquil. You will know when you have listened enough because the other person will be calmer.
5. When the other person is finished thank them for the information and tell them you will consider it. If they ask you to, paraphrase what they’ve said and tell them their point of view is important to you. Invite them to share their ideas with you again if they think of anything else.
When you practice these behaviors you give the other person the opportunity to tell you about themselves. You also show them what it’s like to be listened to in the workplace and have their point of view accepted for what it is: their valuable point of view. This sets up a very important dynamic because it introduces the concept that both people can express themselves without reacting negatively.
Try this approach the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone is telling you something that sets you off. If you practice these skills, the other person will notice that you are giving them the chance to speak and will be more likely to do the same for you.
Even if the other person is trying to upset you you’ll be able to get information directly from them to clarify what’s occurring. People often say things they don’t mean because they don’t feel heard or don’t think it will matter to the other person. What will you do to reduce the defensiveness in your workplace communication?