How to Work with Defensive People at Work

In my job, I work with people a lot. I recently moved into a project management type role which has led to me dealing with all kinds of different people. I often act as a liaison where I ask people, who are not my direct reports, to do process improvement tasks or I may be giving them feedback on their current processes. This can be awkward, especially if the person I am talking to is defensive. If you work in an office setting (or heck even a grocery store), then I am sure you have been confronted with a defensive person before. It can be frustrating and confusing to understand a defensive person, especially if you are coming from a good place. I am still learning a lot about how to deal with defensive individuals, so let’s journey together in how best to deal with these individuals that you have to see or work with daily.

Tips for Dealing with Defensive People At Work

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I have asked a lot of really smart people for advice on this topic, as well as read some articles and books, and here are some takeaways I have for you:

Learn your Stress Reactions

I hate to start with a do not, but there is one thing to address here. Do not respond to defensiveness with defensiveness. Most of us know this, but when your fight or flight kicks in, it can be very difficult to keep your cool with a defensive coworker. Know your body and your stress reactions. Fight or flight can look different for everyone, so make sure you know the first symptoms your body shows when it senses a threat (and yes a defensive person can be a threat, especially if they start blaming you). Do your palms get sweaty, your heart race, or your cheeks flush? By learning and recognizing your symptoms, you may be able to quickly identify that your body is in fight or flight, try taking a few deep breaths and see if you can regulate yourself back to normalcy. When your body is in fight or flight, we don’t say or do the most logical things, so check in with yourself and maybe ask to reschedule the meeting if you can’t get yourself regulated.

Disarm Them

Something you said or did hit a trigger in the defensive person, which means their fight or flight is activated. Triggers can be as small as a glance, it doesn’t have to make sense to us, we just have to recognize it. Once we recognize the defensiveness we can help regulate their emotion by disarming them and making sure we stop looking like a threat to them. Have empathy and humility towards the defensive person. Have the bravery to admit “I am not the smartest person in the room or the expert”, take a moment to praise or compliment the person, and avoid “you” or blaming language. Perhaps they had a similar conversation in their past that led to a lost job or they feel their reputation is on the line. How can you help ease their conscience, especially when they don’t even realize they are having a stress reaction? Make sure you are on video or in-person so that they can better read your body language and vice versa. If you are in a group setting, it may be best to offer to discuss this “offline” at a different time, this will help them cool down before the big talk.

Help Remove the Roadblocks

Sometimes when we give feedback to someone, a defensive person may be stressed about all the steps it will take to change it or make it better. How can you make it easier for them? Can you help facilitate a conversation with another department, assist them in developing a plan, or offer to take something else off their plate in order to focus on this? This will help them see you less as a threat and more as a teammate.

Clarity is Kindness

Don’t beat around the bush, that can make things messy. Be clear about what you are saying. As a person begins to get defensive in a conversation, you may want to step back and clarify your role and goals of the conversation. You may even want to take a moment to address the emotion “I am sorry you are upset about this, that was not my intention, let me try to re-word this”. None of us are perfect, you may even want to admit “I am not very good with these kinds of things, but know that my intention is not to make you upset, please be patient with me as I stumble through this”.

Try to Find Common Ground

Identify common goals such as “I think we can both agree we want the best experience for the customer, right?” Move away from pointing to the person’s mistake, and more to the desired goal and outcome for the future.

Be Open to Conversation

Don’t have your mind set on exactly how a conversation will go. As a person get’s defensive, ask questions and learn about their concerns. You may just find that the other person has an even better idea or solution. Turning a defensive person into a leader for a new solution is a win-win! Stay Curious.

Set up a Coffee Chat

Outside of this conversation or work in general, get to know the person. Learn about things they are passionate about, hobbies, and family. You may even find out that the person has some extra stress outside of work that may help you be a little more patient and empathetic with them. Ideally this would be done before a conflict has arisen. Regardless, when someone is constantly defensive with you, see if you can break any barriers by letting them know more about who you are and your goals. In the end, they don’t have to like you, but the goal is that they at least respect you and vice versa.

Learn their Motivations

What motivates this person? If we change a process that will make their jobs easier, will this person value that? Or do they fear process improvements could lead to them not being needed anymore? Are they motivated by praise or impressing their boss? If so, can you loop their boss in on an email when they did something great? Learning what motivates a defensive person may just help you get to the root of their defensiveness and help build a relationship of respect.

Identify a Lost Cause

As a woman who is young for my role, I am sure I get defensiveness from leaders due to unconscious sexism and ageism. If you think you are facing discrimination, it is important to let your boss know and maybe a trusted HR source to see if they can assist you at all. However, if the project has to get done, I may just invite an older higher ranked male to help facilitate the conversation and have my back if I know that’s the only way we will move on. Unfortunately, discrimination in the workplace is still real. At the end of the day, do your best, don’t lose your cool, write down everything, be trustworthy, consistent and reliable, and get those results. You will have a lot more people that will stand by your side in the end. Forget those one or two knuckleheads and keep your chin up.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given about dealing with defensive people? Drop a comment!

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