I wrote a couple days ago about feeling defensive and, consequently, irrational.
What about when we are not feeling defensive... but we are working with someone who is?
It happens to leaders frequently, simply because of what leadership is. By being in a position in which we potentially have the power to damage others—emotionally, financially, or otherwise—we can find ourselves at the receiving end of defensiveness. In my work as a principal, it's happened to me a lot. I have experienced it when I am talking with a teacher about ways to stretch and grow, or discussing a particular incident in the classroom. It has happened when I am talking with a parent about an issue at home that has begun creeping into the child's school day. And it has happened when a student has been sent to my office for a poor decision, and I have to figure out what happened and doll out consequences for the behavior.
Defensiveness announces its arrival with crossed arms, shaky voices, and teary eyes. There is an expression of distrust and suspicion; people get wary, cautious, and work hard to justify themselves. They can even grow aggressive and overly protective of themselves or others.
So how to respond?
My friend Melissa knows. I have learned a lot about how to handle defensiveness in others by watching her.
Because of her previous work as a special education teacher and supervisor, Melissa has overseen hundreds of special education teachers, students, and their families. In that role, she would encounter countless tricky and difficult scenarios. It was her job to repair damage that had been caused by a contentious problem. Emotions would be running high; sides would have been chosen; there would seem to be no feasible solution in sight. Defensiveness was in full swing.
And Melissa could handle those situations beautifully. With her simple use of one single word—the word "Okay"— she could alleviate all of the angst in the room and move people toward a solution.
It wasn't just "Okay," though, which could be taken as a blasé dismissal. Hers was an acknowledging "Okay." A gentle, understanding acceptance; a legitimizing of feelings.
Here is what would happen: Everyone would sit around the table and Melissa would hone in on the person with the biggest problem. "Tell us what you're thinking or feeling," she would say. And the person would talk as defensive people do: quickly, with anger or frustration, words tumbling over one another. Sometimes they didn't make much sense. They were often irrational, as discussed in my earlier conversation about defensiveness. But even so, when finished, Melissa would smile her calming, beautiful smile. "Okay," she'd say, a loving lilt to her voice, the kind of lilt that said, Really, it's going to be okay. It's okay that you feel that way; it's okay that you are upset; it's okay because we're all here with you, in this problem, and we're all going to work to understand how you feel and find a solution.
And the temperature in the room would go down. Just like that. Melissa would then invite others to share their perspectives and begin moving toward a solution. It worked every single time.
She was like the Defensiveness Whisperer.
I try to emulate Melissa's approach when working with defensive people. Like she does, I make sure I listen really carefully and then acknowledge and accept the stance of the other person, even if it seems irrational to me. I reassure them with an "Okay," so they know it's fine for them to feel as they do and that we're going to come to an acceptable solution for all.
And we will. In the end, we will move past defensiveness— and toward a place that's all okay.