How to Handle Defensive Coworkers

There's a secret to defusing someone's defensiveness and having a less difficult conversation

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Alison Green
If you've ever worked with anyone who is chronically defensive, then you know how difficult it can be to talk to these individuals about practically anything. They argue, they don't hear what you're saying, and, sometimes, they even lash out at you or others. As a result, most people end up avoiding them entirely, since interactions can be so unpleasant. That means problems go unaddressed, and the people around them feel like they can't get their voices heard.

But there's a secret to defusing someone's defensiveness and having a less difficult and less emotionally charged conversation.

[See 5 ways managers fail at a key task.]

People who routinely get defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-positive feedback react that way because they perceive the feedback as much, much bigger than it is. You're saying, "I'm not crazy about how the intro to the report reads," and they're hearing, "This report is terrible, and you're awful at your job." You're saying, "Sometimes I feel like we miscommunicate," and they're hearing "You never pay attention to anything I say. What's wrong with you?" They experience your feedback as a direct attack on them and their worth.

Knowing that this is happening is the key to defusing it. In order to have a calmer conversation with a defensive person, you first need to make them feel safe. That means finding ways to signal to them that things are fine overall, that you like them, that the problems are minor ones in the overall scheme of things. If you don't do this first, they assume the opposite. But, if you establish a sense of safety in these areas, then they don't feel they have to defend themselves and can instead hear and process what you're saying.

[See how to give coworkers advice without annoying them.]

For example: You want to talk to your highly defensive manager about some ways you could work better. If you just launch into your suggestions, she's likely to immediately go on the defensive and perhaps even attack to ward you off. Not only will you not get heard, but your entire attempt to talk will just lead to further strain on the relationship. So, instead, start by telling her that you really like working with her; share some of the reasons, if you can. Now that she's feeling safe in the conversation, tell her that you hoped you could talk about some small "tweaks around the edges" that you think will help you do a better job.

Similarly, defensive people often expect others to react as they do. A defensive manager giving you feedback may be braced for warfare. You can change the entire dynamic by using responses that emphasize your openness to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, "I'm really glad you're telling me this. I didn't realize that this has been an issue, and I'm grateful to know," can dramatically change the nature of the interaction.

The idea is to make it almost impossible for the person to experience your conversations as adversarial because you're going out of your way to create a zone of safety. If they feel safe, even the most defensive people can stay calm, listen, and even become collaborative problem solvers.

Is this a lot to do to accommodate someone? Sure, you could see it that way. But if you'd rather have a good relationship with the person, get your voice heard, and get things done, then this works. Try it—and let me know how it goes.

Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.