Courage in the Face of Defensiveness

It takes courage to initiate important conversations when you fear something might go awry. It takes even more courage when you are met with defensiveness from the receiver. The ability to remain calm and practice interpersonal courage when the other becomes defensive is truly an art and a skill worth cultivating.

A few days ago, during a course on diminishing defensiveness, this issue arose. Some of the questions and the ideas that we discussed follow:

  1. What do you do when you ask someone to speak with you (the A in AEIOU) and they don't want to? Here are some ideas:
    • Tell them what you hope to get from having the conversation and why it is important to you (the E and I in AEIOU).
    • Ask them to do it as a favor to you.
    • Tell the other person how you feel hearing that they don't want to speak with you.
    • Ask the person what their concerns are about having a conversation with you. Not knowing what they might say, this question can be quite courageous.
  2. What if you are doing your best to create an environment that is conducive to having an open dialogue (using AEIOU) and the other person gets frustrated and just wants you get on with it?
    • Respond empathically letting them know you understand their frustration, and tell them what has been valuable for you about setting the stage well.
    • Go to the U of AEIOU even if you're not through obstacles and let the other person know that you will afford them the same respect when they are responding to you and that you would like them to be patient and really listen.
    • Tell them how difficult it is to even initiate the conversation since you are not used to doing so, and ask them to be understanding. Let them know that you will move forward as quickly as you can without hurrying.
    • Let them know the benefit of getting the obstacles out on the table so you are able to be present with them rather than worry about what might go wrong.
  3. What if you say how you feel and they say that they don't care and that it's your problem?
    • After taking a deep breath to calm yourself down, you might consider telling this individual how you feel hearing their sentiments in a self-responsible manner such as, “I feel sad and discouraged hearing that you don't want to sit down with me to talk. Even though I am the one who is concerned, since it involves both of us, it would be best if we both worked it out.”
    • As difficult as it might be, respond empathically and let the other know that you are interested in having a positive conversation and a positive outcome.
    • Tell the person what their statement sounds like to you such as, “Though you may not intend it, when I hear what you say, it sounds as if you don't value our relationship. Is that what you mean to convey?”

Bottom line, regardless of how defensive the other person is, it is incumbent on each of us to do our best to quiet our nervous systems and respond in a manner that diffuses defensiveness and furthers connection, healthy communication, and collaboration.

Judith Bell, M.S., Master LHEP™

Judith Bell, M.S., Master LHEP™

Judith is the founder and president of Rewire Leadership Institute®. A master facilitator, consultant, teacher, and coach, she has created and facilitated personal growth, team development and organizational change seminars, coached executives and teams, facilitated strategic planning and high visibility meetings, and supported culture change for over four decades. Judith works with a diverse range of companies from government agencies, non-profit, Fortune Global 500, to small and mid-sized family owned businesses including such organizations as NASA, Seaflow, Total Oil, Restoration Hardware, San Antonio Water System, and Culver Company.

Superb at supporting individuals, pairs, and teams in developing the skills necessary to realize their full potential, Judith helps executives, managers, and staff gain the ability to respond flexibly and rapidly to their changing environment. Through extensive experience and research, she utilizes a number of different approaches including the FIRO theory, systems theory, cybernetics, neuroscience, cognitive, positive, and success psychology.

As one of the world’s leading experts on the FIRO theory, she trains consultants internationally. A consultant’s consultant, Judith mentors facilitators, coaches, therapists and other professionals in the integration of the FIRO theory in their work. From 1981 until 2004, she worked closely with Dr. Will Schutz, the creator of FIRO theory. Independently, Judith developed FIRO Theory Profiling, which has been lauded as the first innovation in the FIRO theory instruments aside from Dr. Schutz’ own developments. She continues to develop courses that synthesize her studies and experience and are based in FIRO theory.

Starting in her teenage years, Judith has been a pioneer in her passion for authenticity, clear communication, and positive change. She is lauded for her ability to see others’ potential and help them realize it—be they individuals, pairs, teams, or organizations. Judith’s zest for life, appreciation for others, and generosity of spirit inspires those with whom she works.

An honor’s student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Judith’s desire and passion to learn about authenticity motivated her to move her studies to The Institute for Creative and Artistic Development (ICAD) in Oakland, California. As the youngest student in their teacher training program, she created and graduated with an undergraduate degree that focused on authenticity through California State University, Sonoma. Continuing on her quest to study authenticity and creativity, Judith began taking courses at California State University, Hayward where she also created and graduated with a unique Master’s degree that focused on communication, transformation, and the creative arts.

Interested in systems and change, Judith began experimenting with her innovative action-oriented approach to assess and intervene with families, groups, and organizations. Through this work, she became a much sought-after instructor, training masters and doctoral students in her seminal work. As chair of a psychology program focused on Creative Arts Therapies at Antioch University, San Francisco, she developed curriculum and continued to serve as guest faculty and lecturer at universities nationwide.

In addition to leading Rewire Leadership, Judith and her husband, Daniel Ellenberg, co-founded Relationships That Work®, where she serves as Vice President. She and Daniel co-authored Lovers for Life: Creating Lasting Passion, Trust, and True Partnership, which applies the principles of Rewire Leadership Institute® to romantic relationships. Recently, they co-authored a chapter in Mastering the Art of Success: Volume 8. With Matt White, Judith recently co-authored Leading with Courage.

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