“Every time I bring up a new idea to my leader, she gets defensive and shuts me down.  I need a new approach to my communication with her.”


Jacob (not his real name), was frustrated and at his wit’s end.  He felt he was hitting a brick wall every time he tried a new approach in communication. He tried every possible way to present his ideas to save the company money, but he was getting nowhere. Furthermore, his motivation was starting to be affected as well and he really felt his style of communication was getting in his way.


Crucial Conversations is my Communication Bible, as many of you know. One of the most important communication tips in this book is that defensiveness is displayed because the other person feels at risk, unsafe or threatened in some way.  Therefore, it’s important to make sure that both parties feel safe throughout the conversation. Sometimes that means you have to calmly discuss the elephant in the middle of the room.

Safe Communication

Jacob came up with several ideas, which may cause his leader to feel unsafe:


She’s a brand new leader and is afraid to change too much, too quickly

She doesn’t have a full understanding of how the department works yet, so she’s afraid to make a mistake

She seems to be the type of leader that asks a lot of questions, and needs some time to make decisions


Once Jacob identified reasons, he was able to come up with several new approaches to his communication.


“I realize I’ve been bombarding you with a lot of ideas lately for saving money, and you haven’t been receptive.  In fact, I’ve really felt shut down.  I’m very confused.  Can we discuss what I can do better to propose my ideas successfully in the future and have better communication with you?”


“As you can tell by my previous suggestions, I’m really excited to work with you and contribute to the team.  I’m concerned we’re getting off on the wrong foot.  Can we talk about your expectations for the team, and how ideas should be presented?  It would also be really helpful to know how best to align to your decision making style.  Can we discuss that too?”


Instead of throwing more ideas out and getting shut down, Jacob is asking for input on how he can change his communication style. Jacob is directing the conversation away from his leader and towards his process and alignment instead.  Hopefully, Jacob will get some meaningful information from his leader that will enable him to be more successful in the future.


When you notice someone getting defensive in a conversation, it’s best to call it out in a calm, productive way.  No one wants to hear “STOP being SO DEFENSIVE!” during a conversation. That’s not helpful.  Instead, apologize if appropriate:  “I’m sorry if you’re offended in any way, that certainly wasn’t my intention.  My intention is to find out what your thoughts are on this matter so we can find a mutually agreeable solution.”  Of course ‘tone’ also makes all the difference.  Keep that in mind.

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