IN TOUCH : Defensive? Me? What do you mean?

A co-worker responds angrily when anyone disagrees with him; another buries her boss in piles of irrelevant information whenever she’s asked question; husband retreats into silence whenever he gets into an argument with his wife.
These behaviours might appear different – but as American author and workplace consultant James Tamm notes, they’re all variations of the same problem: defensiveness. It leads to conflict and divisiveness and stifles creativity. It can also ruin workplace relations.
Dealing with defensive people is something Tamm knows plenty about. He’s worked in the field of conflict resolution and alliance building for more than 35 years, mediated in hundreds of employment disputes and co-authored Radical Collaboration – handbook for workplace harmony.
In New Zealand this month to facilitate local training programmes, Tamm also spoke to range of business audiences – including members of NZIM and the Human Resource Institute – about how to build workplace culture of collaboration.
Reducing defensive behaviour is good start – and the best way to do that is to avoid becoming defensive yourself, even when provoked. It pays to remember that defensive reactions usually mask feelings of self-doubt.
“Defensive people,” says Tamm, “are unconsciously trying to shield themselves from their own doubts about their significance, competence or likeability.”
Instead of being tempted to argue back when someone becomes defensive, he suggests you “be good listener” – taking both words and emotional content into account, summarising what’s being said to check for accuracy and resisting the urge to evaluate, criticise or suggest.
Another tactic is to try “interest negotiation” whereby the first goal of parties in dispute is for each to state their opponents’ underlying interests to their satisfaction. This creates an atmosphere of understanding that makes defensive behaviour less likely and leads to more collaborative hunt for solutions.
Tamm says while there are times when people need to defend themselves from verbal attacks, these are rare and defensive reactions are mostly not only ineffective but tend to undermine your credibility. He suggests that people head off their own feelings of defensiveness by being aware of both the physical warning signs and the thought patterns that go with them (eg, tightening gut, general sense of paranoia or rejection, tendency to shut down). Respond to negative thoughts – “she doesn’t think I’m very smart” – with positive self talk or stop to take few deep breaths if you feel the urge to counter-attack.
Tamm has developed training programme designed to equip people with the skills needed to shift organisations out of what he characterises as “red-zone” territory (where blame, fear, guardedness and risk avoidance rule) into “green-zone” (high-trust/low-blame, mutually supportive, creative) environments.
The five skills he focuses on are collaborative intention, commitment to truthfulness, self accountability, self awareness and negotiating. He says concentrating on these and implementing them throughout the company will have huge impact both on its effectiveness and on employee dissatisfaction levels.
“A green-zone culture,” he says, “begins inside the individual and works its way out into organisations.”
His programme is being offered in New Zealand through Hamilton-based business The Effect.
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