June 2015

Diminish Defensiveness

Life's Better on the Thrive Side

It's so easy to react defensively and so much harder to clean up.

Since defensiveness comes from our survive brain and is a natural reaction to any perception of threat, it is important to learn how to clean up messes when we create them as well as do whatever self-regulation is possible to avoid creating a rupture.

As we focus on diminishing defensiveness, it is important to remember that defenses aren't bad. They are simply our primitive nervous system doing a learned habit to stay safe. They are, however, what we don't like inside ourselves and in others. The more we can diminish the old, archaic defensive reactions that were survival strategies and that served us well in our family of origin, the more we can create the thriving relationships we desire.

As you look for various defensive reactions in Sally, Donna, and the folks with whom they interact, also think about the ways in which you react defensively when you're feeling stressed and/or anxious.


We left Sally after she had a near-accident while driving. Now, she's paying more attention as she drives the last couple of miles to work.

Sally finds that it is hard to pay attention to her driving. Her mind is racing. From her upset with Larry, her anger at Tom for getting her this job, her anxiety about the upcoming meeting with Tom, her relief that she wasn't killed, to her realization that her mascara ran and her makeup is a mess—Sally is unable to focus her mind on any one thing.

“At least my coffee didn't spill on my suit,” she hears herself mutter.

Sally arrives at work without further incident and hurries to her office. She has a couple of cartons in hand that she will use to collect her stuff. She is glad that she didn't put too much effort into decorating her office. She begins to take down her award certificates and places them carefully in the carton. Then, she wraps the few photos she brought of her family, Carolyn and Larry, and places them on top. She looks around. Not much. She collects her pens, the few files that she cares about, and a few personal belongings from the drawers. Again, she surveys the office. She's done. She looks at the clock. She has at least 30 minutes before people start arriving.

“What should I do?” Sally thinks to herself. “Should I leave the boxes in plain site so Tom and everyone else sees that I'm packing up? Or should I move them into my car so it is less obvious?” Her anxiety rises. She doesn't know what to do.

“Sally, get it together!” she says out loud. She decides to get the cart from the storage closet and take the cartons to her car.

Sally puts the cartons in her trunk and walks back to the office. She feels relieved and anxious, all at the same time. She returns the cart to the storage closet and as she closes the door and walks into the hallway, Tom calls out, “Hi Sally. My, you're here early.”

Sally turns on her heel and sees Tom walking toward her. Flustered, she responds, “Yes, and so are you.”

Tom grins as he walks up to her and says, “Right, I have an important meeting to attend.”

“Do you mean our meeting?” Sally asks, blushing.

“Yes, exactly,” Tom responds. “Since we're both here, how about grabbing some coffee together first?”

Even though Sally has had enough coffee for the day, she nods in acquiescence and falls in step with Tom as they walk to the cafe. Sally begins chattering.

“Tom, it is so nice of you to meet with me this morning. I hope your drive to work was less stressful than mine. I almost had an accident, but luckily for me, someone stopped in time. How has your morning been?”

Tom looks at Sally with concern, “Sally, I'm glad you're okay and sorry you had such a stressful morning already. I hope you're not stressed about our meeting.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Sally lies through her smile. “I know you're concerned about me and you have my best interest at heart. I'm glad to have a boss like you.”

Tom nods but looks at Sally quizzically. “Shall we sit here?” Tom suggests, motioning to a small table on the edge of the cafe. The two of them sit and Sally fidgets nervously.

Sally sighs audibly, looks around, and blurts out, “Tom, before you start asking questions, I want you to know that I appreciate your efforts on my behalf. However, something has come up with my daughter and I'm afraid that I have to leave the company.” Sally pauses to let her words sink in, then she continues, “I know it's sudden, but Carolyn needs me so I just have to do it. It's too bad since this is such a great place and you're such a great boss. But, as you say, family comes first. I'm sure you understand. And I've already cleared out my office so there doesn't have to be any commotion on the floor.” Sally's face is red, her heart is pounding, and her hands are sweating. Tom looks at her without saying a word. Sally looks away. Tom continues looking at her.

With concern and care in his voice, Tom says slowly, “Sally, I'm sorry this place has been so difficult for you. I would like to hear what has happened that has made it so intolerable. I won't try to convince you to stay if you are determined to leave. However, I would like to know what has created so much stress for you.” Tom sits there silently, waiting for Sally to respond. Sally blushes even more, then turns almost white. She begins to shiver.

As we wait to hear how Sally responds, let's see what's happened for Donna subsequent to the project review she just attended...

Donna leaves the review feeling satisfied that Lakir, the project manager, Paresh, the project engineer, and the team have a sound strategy for moving their project, ARCTIC, back into the green. Donna is both relieved and happy. There was a relaxed environment during the review as well as a high degree of rigor. Good questions were asked and the team responded without getting defensive. Donna pinches herself and shakes her head in amazement.

“I'm afraid it can't last,” she mutters aloud. “This must be the honeymoon phase. This place can't be so good.”

Donna returns to her office, checks her email, responds to a few, and then looks at what her team has put together for the All-Hands meeting. While she's reviewing it, she gets a call from Lorin, her boss.

“Do you have any time today?” Lorin asks. “I'd like to speak with you about an issue that's arisen in a different division.”

Perplexed, Donna responds, “Certainly, Lorin. I'm glad to help in any way I can. I have a few minutes now, then meetings all day. I could meet with you for lunch. Would that work?” Pleased, Lorin and Donna set up their lunch meeting.

Donna, still perplexed, takes a minute or so to imagine what Lorin might want from her; then she goes back to reviewing the material for their All-Hands. She writes an email to those who sent her material commenting on the product and another email to those who have not yet sent in anything. She looks at the clock, cleans up her desk, and heads off to her next meeting.

At lunch, Lorin and Donna meet in the cafeteria, get their food, and head off to a quiet area where they'll be able to have a private conversation. Lorin starts by thanking Donna for making time for her and then asking how she's doing and how her team is doing. Knowing that this is not the focus of their time together, Donna responds with broad brush strokes, giving just enough information to satisfy Lorin. Then Lorin launches into the real reason for their lunch meeting.

“Donna, you've acclimated to this culture so well,” Lorin says. “Everyone can see that you're thriving. The folks who work on your team and your peers can't speak highly enough about you. I'm wondering if you might be able to help another employee who came in just about the same time you did who is having difficulty acclimating to this environment. It may be that it is just not the right fit but it may also be that this individual needs support to understand our culture. Kind of like a culture on-boarding. Are you willing to meet with her if she's open to it?”

“Wow, Lorin,&#8221 Donna responds, floored. “First, I want you to know how much I appreciate hearing your feedback about others at the company seeing that I'm thriving. That is so true. I feel like I've landed in Oz or actually, a little slice of heaven. So, anything I can do that might help someone else to be able to appreciate and contribute to this culture, I'm willing to do.”

“Thanks, Donna,” Lorin smiles. “The employee's first name is Sally. She's in Tom's division. I don't know if you've met Tom Biente yet. He's a fabulous division leader and a great colleague. He and I worked together for years. Also, we went to leadership classes together so I know him very well. I'll speak with him and then get back to you. Thanks for your willingness to help out.”

As Donna and Lorin eat lunch together, they cover a wide variety of topics. Donna asks Lorin for suggestions about how to increase the rigor in their project reviews. She listens carefully, finds that she was already doing some of the suggestions, and asks for more information about other suggestions. They finish lunch, thank each other, and go their separate ways to their own offices.


It's easy to see the difference between Sally's defensive reactions and Donna's non-defensive responses. Considering that Sally is in a highly stressed state, it is no wonder that all kinds of behavioral, perceptual, and attitudinal defenses are showing up. Sally, however, has no awareness of her defenses even after they have manifested, nor does she have much ability to self-regulate. She has some, however. She is able to quiet her nervous system enough to drive to work safely after the near accident. Clearing out her office actually uses a primary defensive behavior of hers. Not liking to feel emotions and not knowing what to do with them, Sally is used to 'doing' things to get her environment in order. That always relieves her anxiety, since she has the sense that she is able to control some part of her life.

Donna has an easier ride in this episode. She could have launched into the 'helper' defense during the review, making sure that she was the one asking the important questions and that she was the one giving advice. A nice thing for her to see about herself was that she didn't feel any compulsion to prove how smart she was or how helpful she could be. She really let her team, the project engineer, and the project manager do the work. Similarly, with Lorin's invitation to support another employee, she is pretty sure that she would have jumped to save the day even one year ago. She feels proud of herself that she was asked, but it isn't a cause for any feelings of superiority. In fact, she feels more curious about this other person, Sally, who isn't thriving in this culture. She hopes that Sally will want to meet.

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