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HR Handled Right

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communication

When Rich’s dad was sober, he was attentive and loving, someone Rich could confide in. But when he drank, he became angry dad, a dad who would throw Rich’s confidences back in his face. “No wonder you were the last one picked for the dodge ball game,” he slurs after Rich accidentally knocks over his dad’s briefcase. “You’re so damn clumsy.”

Lessons learned. Never show your vulnerabilities. Don’t trust anyone because, sooner or later, you’ll be sorry.

Ms. Griggs, a burned out third grade teacher, angrily marches back into her noisy class after a brief visit to the restroom. “Who was talking?” she demands. Rich and a few of his honest classmates stand up while others, including his also-talking best friend, point fingers at their classmates. The honest few get paddled.

Lesson learned: Honesty is for suckers. Point fingers if you have to, but don’t admit blame.

Today, Rich is a manager who goes on the defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-glowing feedback. If a subordinate expresses a different opinion or questions a task, he refuses to even consider the possibility that their own way of looking at things might be incomplete. As a result, problems in his department often go unaddressed and his employees feel unheard and unappreciated.

Why is she so defensive?

Most of us have had a conversation that started off innocently enough but ended in the heat of battle. We remind our spouse that it’s garbage day and he “jokingly” tells us to quit nagging. We think: What? Is he calling me a nag? Perhaps I need to set the record straight by reacquainting him with the 23 times he’s forgotten to take out the garbage in the past six months.

Notice that these thoughts no longer have to do with taking the garbage out; they are focused on protecting our self-image and defending our self-esteem. The ante has been upped because our spouse’s remark – no matter how “joking” – feels like a personal attack. Whenever people feel unsafe in a conversation they either fight (e.g. controlling, labeling, sarcasm, anger) or flee (e.g. silence, avoiding). Effective communication stops and the discussion shifts away from the issue toward the protection of the self.

What’s Wrong with Rich?

People like Rich have learned to never feel safe. They are always on the lookout for an emotional attack. However, while other people get the brunt of Rich’s defensiveness, what Rich is really defending himself against is his own fear.

People don’t get defensive unless they believe that have something to defend. Chronic defensiveness is almost always based on a fear not only of someone else discovering the insignificant, incompetent or unlikable person the defender believes s/he is hiding, but being forced to re-experience the painful insecurities that drive the defensive behavior. How much better to shut down the “opposition” that be forced to admit our worst fears about ourselves might be true!

In my next blog, we’ll take a look at how to talk to a highly defensive manager, coworker or employee. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Here I was; nineteen and head over heels in love with a guy I secretly believed was better looking and smarter than I was. The last thing I wanted to do was rock the boat in our relationship. So, for months, I bit my tongue when I was annoyed by things that he did (was late, “teased” a little too much, changed plans at the last minute).

Of course, this is – and was – a recipe for disaster. Sooner or later, there would be a straw that would break my camel’s back and out it would come – every frustration, irritation and annoyance that I had held in. Temporarily, I would feel such relief, as if I were purging myself of all the pent-up emotion that had been weighing me down. Unfortunately, the fall-out from this barrage would confirm my worst fears; 1) that standing up for myself might do irreparable damage to my relationship and 2) that I would wind up apologizing – and “being wrong” – for taking up for myself.

Don’t Sabotage Yourself

If you’re uncomfortable with conflict, as many of us are, it can be hard to muster the courage to tackle a difficult topic. This can result in a vicious cycle; our discomfort leads us to communicate in a way that guarantees we’ll fail, confirming our worst fears about interpersonal conflict. We’ll talk about ways to resolve an argument in future posts; here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at ways to guarantee you won’t.

  • Hit “below the belt.” Make sure you attack areas of personal sensitivity, like the person’s physical appearance, personality, character, or trustworthiness.
  • Generalize. Use words like “never” or “always.” Not only will it guarantee that your partner-in-argument will become defensive, it will give him or her loophole. After all, it’s rare that a person never or always does something.
  • Stockpile. Why settle for a battle when you can start a war? The next time you’re in an argument, bring up every grievance and hurt feeling in the history of your relationship.
  • Clam up. Who doesn’t love the silent treatment? Start it when the other person is most vulnerable, so wait until the other person is genuinely expressing his or her distress.
  • Insist that “most people” would also see things your way. In one-on-one disagreement, it’s always useful to find ways to gang up on the other person. One way is to insist that any reasonable/sane/smart (you fill in the blank) person would agree with you.
  • Go the distance. Remember; there’s no such thing as “pick your battles.” Be prepared to argue every point in every disagreement until you’ve beaten the other person down. And never compromise.
  • Yell. You know if you say it loud enough, you’re guaranteed to get the other person to see the light. Plus, it gets him or her to shut up.
  • Assume the worst. Yeah, your manager said she gave you a “3” out of 5 on your performance evaluation because you’ve been slacking off lately, but you know it’s because she’s jealous of your superior intelligence and wants to knock you down a peg or two. Always assume the other person has an ulterior motive, especially when s/he tells you something you don’t like.
  • Find common ground and use it to show how superior you are.I’m stressed too, but I still make sure I exercise.” “I also have a nanny and understand she can get sick. That’s why I made sure I have a backup daycare.” Yes, these may be good solutions for this person going forward, but they’re not going to be helpful in the heat of an argument.

 

The Bottom Line

English novelist Joseph Conrad said, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.” And , all too often, the wrong words carry more weight than the truth.