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Dealing with defensive people

Identify and conquer the fight-or-flight response with these four simple steps


Conflict resolution is certainly one of the tools that leaders need to keep in their leadership toolbox. However, it can be challenging to implement these skills when dealing with the person in your group who just loves to be defensive and argue with you. As soon as I wrote that, a couple faces popped into my mind – maybe you can picture those employees too. Even more scary: one of those faces was my own. I was this person earlier in my career.

In EMS, it seems that our first reactions always seem to be defensive when our medicine is questioned, or when we are presented with negative feedback or criticism. When we work with someone who is defensive, it causes you as the leader to feel frustration and tension, and just makes communicating with that person a challenge. In this article, let’s spend some time discussing how best to deal with defensive people.

What causes defensiveness

Defensiveness is part of our fight-or-flight response. When we feel threatened, our defense mechanism kicks in. Everything we do causes electrical signals to move up our spinal cord and enter the brain. The first stop is the limbic system that powers the fight-or-flight response, automatically give the signal as to how to react. Then, that signal makes it way to the frontal lobe, where reasoning and logic takes place.

So, you may determine the situation is no big deal, but you cannot change your initial emotion, felt nanoseconds before. You may have determined the situation is no big deal, but still be angry. This is where you have a strong understanding of your own self-awareness, as to understand why you feel and react the way you do.

Signs of being defensive

Most of us know the signs of someone being defensive, but it’s important to pay attention to them all:

  • Body language. The big sign of defensiveness is the dreaded cross-armed syndrome. As soon as someone feels defensive, they will cross their arms and lean back to get as far away from the perceived threat as possible. When listening to non-verbal communication, watch the person’s eyes. There may be a positive head shake, maybe even a smile, but the emotion behind the eyes will never lie.
  • Making their case. There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth. A defensive employee may make their case through snide remarks or arguing – not wanting to take responsibility, turning the tables and blaming others.
  • Denial. Regardless of what people are saying, or the proof that is presented, defensive people will always deny their involvement or responsibility.

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Identify defensive people and conquer the fight-or-flight response.

Effective communication

Managing defensive people is all about communication and how you carry yourself while interacting with them. We as leaders have our own fight-or-flight response and may become defensive too. We just need manage our emotions better. Here are 4 tips for managing difficult conversations.

  1. Learn how to communicate effectively. First, you do not need to agree with what is being said. It is OK to “agree to disagree” when responding. Communication is a science and one that must be mastered, especially when you’re involved in a crucial, critical, or defensive conversation.
  2. Practice active listening. Active listening is vital when dealing with someone who is defensive. You as the leader must get to the root of the defensiveness. The best way to do this is to sit and listen to this person util you can come to the root cause of the behavior. Now, with this said, you need set the time limits, or some people will argue their point all day. When someone would come into my office with a complaint, I would tell them they had 7 minutes to lay it out for me. If you need a second session, schedule that right away.
  3. Ask more questions. Asking questions is the secret sauce to peeling back the onion to the bottom of an issue. Active listening will show you are engaged, interested and determined to get to the bottom of the issue.
  4. Do not argue. When someone goes on the defensive, it is normal to go on the offensive. Remember, this is just business. No matter what is said or how you perceive it, reacting will only make it worse. Be calm, persistent and repetitive if needed to get your point across (e.g., “according to our protocols, you must bring all equipment into the house on every call”).

As leaders, we must ensure we are giving everyone the time, energy and assistance they need to stay engaged and satisfied at work. When a defensive person is giving you an earful, let them speak, hear them out, see if you can get to the root cause, and help them find a solution. If you feel yourself falling into the defensive trap, it is OK to end the discussion and pick it back up later.

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Chris Cebollero is a nationally recognized Emergency Medical Services leader, best selling author, and advocate. Chris is a member of the Forbes Coaching Council and available for speaking, coaching and mentoring. Currently Chris is the president/CEO for Cebollero & Associates, a medical consulting firm, assisting organizations in meeting the challenges of tomorrow. Cebollero is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Follow Chris on Twitter @ChiefofEMS and on FaceBook.

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