Deflecting blame, denying responsibility, and minimizing negative impact are defensive behaviors that make problem-solving conversations frustrating. To reduce defensiveness and increase their willingness to take responsibility, use this research-supported approach when you confront.
The urge to defend ourselves may well have evolutionary roots. Get blamed, get tossed out of the group, and we’ve got to face the lions and tigers and bears all by ourselves. Defensiveness may be so deeply woven into the fabric of our humanity that when our behavior has a negative impact we may actually experience less responsibility than when the impact is benign.
Factors like these are worth remembering when we confront someone about their words or actions, because they help us choose the right path for our own words and actions. Put another way: We have more power than we may think to reduce someone else’s defensiveness — but to do so, we must be able to embrace their humanity even while we disagree with what they did.
That’s our work when we want them to do their work.
Researchers at Australia’s Flinders University were interested in the factors that increase and decrease defensiveness, and in finding ways to foster responsibility-taking when someone’s behavior has a negative impact. After two experiments, here’s what they concluded:
Defensiveness increases when people feel stigmatized or rejected, and people who feel secure in their identity as a valued group member are less defensive.
Said the researchers,
(Side note: One of the two experiments in the study made use of the controversial Implicit Association Test, a tool that critics believe to be flawed. The researchers acknowledge the possible limits of the IAT and conducted the second experiment in part to account for this.)
The approach: Build up the social bond
So when we want to reduce their defensiveness and help them take responsibility, our work is to choose language and tone that isn’t stigmatizing, and to stress (if it’s true, of course) that their behavior isn’t putting them on notice.
At work, this means making sure they know their job and membership in your team aren’t in jeopardy or that they aren’t about to be written up (again, if true). The research suggests that it isn’t enough to imply it — you’ve got to say it to make sure they’re not letting wounds from prior supervisors or other team members color what they’re hearing from you.
Put into words, this might sound like, “I view you as a key team member and have something to discuss that I believe will strengthen your contributions even more.”
At home with your partner, this means making sure you’re not threatening divorce or separation — or implying either — when you confront a problem you have with them. It means reining in any tendency to disparage or condemn. It means making a point of highlighting your love and respect for them.
Put into words, this might sound like, “I think we’re a damn great team and hope we can sort out something that’s been bothering me a bit” or, more subtly, “Hey, Sweetie, is now an ok time to discuss something that’s on my mind?”
As you read this, are you thinking that this seems like too much effort and it shouldn’t be your job to fix their defensiveness? Here’s the rub: You may be contributing to their defensiveness by the way you confront. And, of course, while you’re waiting around for them to change, you’re stuck with a behavior you don’t like.