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Play it safe with defensive co-workers

by on
in Workplace Communication

A co-worker, Pam, argues with practically anything you say, she doesn’t hear what you’re trying to say, and she even lashes out sometimes.

Working with a chronically defensive person is difficult, but there’s a secret to having better conversations:

Create a zone of safety at the start of a conversation.

A defensive person perceives feedback as much bigger than it is. She feels attacked. When you say, “I’m not crazy about the phrasing in this intro,” for example, Pam might hear, “This report is terrible, and you’re awful at your job.”

That’s important to keep in mind. To have a calmer conversation, start by signaling that things are fine overall, that the problems are minor, and that overall you like your co-worker and her work just fine.

If you don’t do this first, she’ll assume the worst.

It even works if you’re trying to broach a topic with a defensive boss.

Example: Say you want to suggest making a change in the way something is done. If you simply launch into making your suggestion, your boss may go on the defense and ward you off.

Instead, start by telling him that you like working with him, giving him some specifics about why. Now that he’s feeling safe, say, “I hoped we could talk about some small tweaks around the edges that I think will help me do a better job.”

You want to make it almost impossible for the person to experience your conversations as adversarial. If they feel safe, even the most defensive people can stay calm, listen, and even help you achieve your goals.

— Adapted from “How to Handle Defensive Coworkers,” Alison Green, U.S. News & World Report.

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