Leveraging Defensiveness—Why You Should And How To Do It

Defensiveness is one of the monsters under our collective beds. Worse yet, under the guise of so-called Ego (being egoic, ego-driven, etc), Defensiveness practically becomes the secular version of evil; “defensive” is not something you want to be accused of, it’s a character flaw. 

Well, if that is the case, then we are all similarly flawed and in extremely good company. 

Indeed, defensiveness is actually something we should want to catch ourselves and others doing—it’s where the good stuff is. 

First, to get clear on what defensiveness is: 

Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is to blame. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. 

The Gottman Institute

Dire as that sounds, defensiveness in itself is not at all a problem. 

That’s worth repeating: defensiveness is not a problem

What is it, then? 

Defensiveness is an opportunity—and a really good one at that. 

The Virtue of a Good Recovery 

In relationships, the repairing of a breach often yields better outcomes than if the rupture had never occurred in the first place. 

As in resistance-training, the recovery process is where the gains are made—trust, understanding, and cooperation all increase. 

On an individual level, our defensiveness tells us things, important things like: 

  • what we care about 
  • what we believe we can’t take or tolerate 
  • where our limits are 
  • what ‘the water we’re swimming in’ is 

And as a group the same things are true—we are shown: 

  • What’s important to us 
  • Where our differences are 
  • What we see as threats 
  • Assumptions that restrain us 

In truth, the only defensiveness that is a problem is the defensiveness that’s having us; it’s the stuff we can’t or won’t tolerate that ends up running the show—our show. 

Most importantly, it’s our dedication to avoiding discomfort that creates the blindspot for our defensiveness to be dictating terms.

A Fairy Tale 

There’s a wonderful tale, an ancient tale, in fact, told by Robert Bly in his seminal book Iron John. The beginning tells us a great deal about how we might best work with unexpected adversity. 

It starts with strange happenings in a forest adjacent to a castle, with the King in conversation with a cocky young man, a hunter, who’s looking for adventure, “something dangerous.” 

Bly takes up the story: 

The King says: “Well, I could mention the forest, but there’s a problem. The people who go out there don’t come back. The return rate is not good.” 

“That’s just the kind of thing I like,” the young man says. So he goes into the forest and, interestingly, he goes there alone, taking only his dog. The young man and his dog wander about in the forest and they go past a pond. Suddenly a hand reaches up from the water, grabs the dog, and pulls it under. 

The young man doesn’t respond by becoming hysterical. He merely says, “This must be the place.” 

An important fact I’ll add, missing from Bly’s version, is the name of his dog: “my little dog of Ever-Fresh Awareness.” 

Let’s pause here a moment. 

What does it look like when you encounter differences, disagreements, or disappointments? More importantly, how does it feel to have your buttons pushed? Indeed, how do we even know when that is what’s happening? 

We know we are being defensive when our little dog of ‘fresh-awareness’ goes down. 

When your dog goes under 

If you have ever responded or reacted in some way you later thought was less than graceful—and who hasn’t?—then you’ll know what I’m referring to. 

It’s that constellation of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ and in each case the effect is to be reactive, impulsive, lacking in creativity, and dominated by a tunnel-vision of sorts. In particular, our feelings are having their way with us rather than us having them. 

In this place, we feel we have a few options at hand. We’ve been emotionally hijacked as feelings blindside us, capture our attention, and drag our sense of personal agency ‘down.’ 

So, what to do now? 

Our story suggests not to panic, not to continue to react, but instead to acknowledge: “This must be the place.” 

What ‘place’ is that? 

Back to the story… 

Fond as he is of his dog and reluctant as he is to abandon him, the hunter goes back to the castle, rounds up three more men with buckets, and comes back to the pond to bucket out the water. Anyone who’s ever tried it will quickly note that such bucketing is very slow work. 

Bucket-work and it’s advocates 

Who do you work with who you can confide in? Who’s got your back? 

When was the last time you asked a colleague to take the time to help you unpack some event or interaction that went sideways? ‘Ever? 

Here’s why you might want to: there is gold to be mined in that place if you will just take a few moments to lean in and be with whatever’s going on for you, warts and all.

If we stay present to our discomfort, we will also feel something else arising, something more real, capable, sensitive, and exquisitely aware of ourselves and our surroundings. (The Wisdom of the Enneagram, pg.37) 

Unfortunately, our default when uncomfortable is to resort to one or both of two broad coping-strategies: 

Either we collapse into some version—our version—of despair, panic, or distress. Or we resort to assuming a posture of invulnerability—we act untouched, more powerful than we feel or are. 

In the end, neither work; they are attempts to escape and as such is without nuance, lack a creative response to the context at hand, and likely are strategies triggered by the similarities between this moment and some more troubling event in our distant past. 

The alternative? 

Well, it’s not going to be easy, but it does pay dividends to involve others in the exploration…

The hard part… 

I had said we might consider taking a few moments to lean in and be with whatever’s going on for us when next we’re feeling defensive. Sounds simple enough, but of course it’s not. 

In the words of Aladdin’s Genie: “Ah, almost. There are just a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos…”

There’s the small issue of Vulnerability to be dealt with—tough anywhere, but often even tougher to be with while at work. 

Clearly, if staying with our defensiveness was easy to do, we would already be good at it—especially given the long list of benefits outlined earlier. We’re not

In our story, we see what generally happens when we get to the bottom of something. The bucketing work done… 

In time, what they find, lying on the bottom of the pond, is a large man covered with hair from head to foot. The hair is reddish—it looks a little like rusty iron. He is Wild. They take the man back to the castle and imprison him. 

We don’t want ‘to go there’ because we know things can get a bit out of hand, a little wild even. 

Moreover, we don’t always feel we have what it takes to effectively respond to the truths we may find having explored some issue all the way through. 

But we need to try. 

If it’s any consolation we can remember Nicole Daedone’s reminder to herself when intense discomfort arises: “The way to not feel like this forever, is to feel like this now.” 

Eugene Gendlin also helps us stay with what’s true, by reminding us: 

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with
– anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it. 

This is new territory for most of us at work, however we needn’t be intimidated merely because it’s unfamiliar. 

The opportunity here is to be in a process of developing the interpersonal skills required for the next level of team collaboration; by necessity, that will be a stretch, but then all growth is. 

Where to from here..? 

This is probably the part in this post where I should give you the listicle of ‘hacks’ that will absolutely rescue you from ever falling prey to the dictates of defensiveness in particular, or to the vagaries of interpersonal discomfort at work in general. 

Instead, I’ll leave you with some breadcrumbs to follow: 

  • an invitation to use your curiosity to stay a little longer with intensity than you would otherwise
  • a promise of numerous benefits if you do; and 
  • a reminder that we’re all just people here, often with lives more complicated than they appear, and our defensiveness marks the place where we stand to discover the most about others, ourselves, and the work we are pursuing.