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« 14. EQ leaders: How not to become defensive »

Written by Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute. Author of "How to develop emotional resilience and manage your emotions".

When people say something to you, about yourself, or your work, or the organisation you lead, how do you react? Do you listen quietly to what was said and respond calmly having taken in the valuable parts and dumped the rest, or do you get defensive?

Giving and receiving feedback is a vital part of any leadership role and being able to hear what people say without feeling hurt or needing to become defensive is a crucial part of an emotionally intelligent leadership style.

The problem with a low emotional intelligence and defensiveness

Sometimes when we get defensive we make things harder for ourselves. First, we are giving the other person ammunition to further attack us with. Second, we can escalate the issue and turn it into a conflict. Third, we can look as though we are not confident in ourselves. And worse still, we can end up souring what could have been a perfectly easy interaction.

In contrast, not getting defensive can help you to develop relationships at work and at home; to provide superb customer service, work well in a team, receive feedback easily and to be seen as a leader that others do want to follow. Develop your emotional intelligence and put an end to defensiveness.

What can you do to ditch defensiveness?

Want to improve your skills as an emotionally intelligent leader and avoid becoming defensive? Then book into our smart leadership coaching package.

Emotional intelligence tip 1: Pause.

Pausing is so simple. Yet many people rush in to their responses before they barely have time to think. If you can insert a pause between what another person has said and your response you have the opportunity to select how you respond, rather than becoming defensive.

Count to three, (or ten if you count quickly); take a deep breath, or throw a question back to give you more thinking time.

Emotional intelligence tip 2: Do not think everything is about you.

Some people get defensive because they perceive everything as personal attack, or as something personal against themselves. When you think like this you are leaving yourself open to hurt. In fact, you are hurting yourself. Do not assume everything is about you. It isn’t.

For example, I have recently been working with a man who, every time I asked a question, perceived it as a personal challenge to his credibility. However, the questions were being asked because I was ignorant and I required particular information to do my job well. He happened to be the one with the information.

Instead of a simple answer to my question, I would get a lengthy explanation regarding his qualifications and experience, as though my questions were to challenge his authority. He thought it was about him. It wasn’t. It made it difficult to work with him easily.

I kept reminding myself that he was probably insecure. Had he simply said, "The answer is ..." then we would have worked together much more easily. I was being diplomatic but still he became defensive.

Emotional intelligence tip 3: Consider the other person.

If someone calls your organisation and says the customer service is rotten, it is not about you personally. It is about how the other person perceives the customer service in your organisation. You just happened to be the person who picked up the phone. Even if you are insulted and the caller makes it sound personal, it still isn’t about you; it is about the other person and how angry, frustrated or helpless they feel.

If you can consider how the other person is feeling you may stop yourself becoming defensive and be able to remain calm. Ask yourself, "How is she or he feeling?" Then acknowledge this, e.g. "It sounds as though you feel undermined." If you concentrate on how the other person is feeling it is much harder to become defensive. Instead you will be more able to help the other person.

In case you are thinking "but I am not involved in customer service", then this also applies to your executive team, your senior managers, your supervisors, children, partner, father-in-law, mother and the neighbours.

Can they say things to you without your becoming defensive? 

Book into our smart leadership coaching package and improve your skills as an emotionally intelligent leader.

Emotional intelligence tip 4: Be open to feedback.

We all have blind spots – things that we don’t see or understand about our behaviours and ourselves. When other people tell us about these things, we could listen, instead of becoming defensive. They may be telling us something useful.

For example, a woman recently asked me for feedback on a presentation she was preparing. What I noticed was that irrespective of the feedback I gave, it was never adopted, and instead she'd justify why she had done something in a certain way. In other words she became defensive, even though I could quite clearly help her.

It wasn't as though it was a sensitive area. I was giving feedback on PowerPoints for a presentation and saying things, such as, "lime green print on a blue background may not stand out enough when projected, I suggest you use colours of higher contrast to make it easier for the audience to see, such as white on dark blue." It's the kind of input I regularly give people in my line of work!

In the end, I got to the point where it seemed pointless for me to invest my time in her request for feedback. She missed out. And so did the people she was presenting to.

Whether you ask for it or not, try to listen to feedback you are given, even if you don't like what is being said – it might be really useful. Why ignore it? Why get defensive? We can all learn from others.

One way to help you listen is to practise calming self-talk as you hear the feedback. You can always say to yourself, "I don’t like this but it may be useful," or "Maybe I can learn something that will help me", or "How kind of her to pluck up the courage to tell me," and so on.

Be a high EI leader and develop your emotional intelligence now.

Want to improve your skills as an emotionally intelligent leader? Then book into our smart leadership coaching package.

For more details or to make a booking e-mail us now or pick up the phone and call us.

Develop your emotional intelligence now.