What is your usual reaction to feeling grossly misunderstood?

How do you react when you feel unjustly characterized or criticized with negative feedback?

If you are like most of the coaching clients I have encountered over the past 15 years— your instinctive reaction is probably predictable.

You get defensive.

Your “fight” or “flight” instincts kick in.

You react one of two ways:

1.  You are ready to defend and protect yourself against what you perceive as attack or unfair criticism.  You aim to show whoever is unfairly judging you how wrong they really are.  Your body stiffens, your facial expressions harden, and your pulse quickens.  Your mind signals that you are under attack so you bring forward your entire artillery of argumentative defenses to be sure to save yourself.

2.  You defensively withdraw.  Say nothing, walk away, sulk and plan your grandiose exit strategy from the relationship, situation, or organization that is misunderstanding you.

Sound familiar?

We all experience defensive, protective, and reactive feelings when we think we are being misunderstood or attacked.  Often the reactions we naturally have to fight or flee only serve to make matters worse, disempower us, and ensure a negative outcome.

Several years ago, one of my executive clients was chronically experiencing what she perceived as being grossly misunderstood and unfairly criticized by her boss.  In every encounter they had, she was in the cycle of either adamantly defending herself or saying nothing and seething inside.  Her reactions were resulting in the perception that she was defensive and negative with an inability to handle constructive feedback, which led to perpetuate her defensive response. Her stress levels were climbing to an all-time high—adversely affecting her overall health and mental well-being.   She was not in a position to leave her job, so her frustration was leaving her feeling powerless and nearing depression.

Not a pretty picture.

We discussed her choices.  She could continue with more of the same cycle, or she could take control and break the cycle.

She chose to take control.

Although she remained in the same job with the same boss, she turned the situation completely around and ended up in a much more empowered, productive, and less defensive and reactive place.  Her stress levels dropped dramatically after she took some simple actions.

How did she do it?

Here are three simple actions we discussed to move out of the reactive space she had let herself cycle into and get stuck in:

1.    Move from the field to the mountain top to depersonalize the interaction

When we are perpetually in a defensive posture, it is hard to see any other perspective than our own vantage point.  We get stuck in our emotions and viewpoints and can’t see past them.  When you find yourself getting defensive, stop, take a deep breath, and “climb the mountain”.  By this I mean literally remove yourself from the situation at hand in your mind, and picture yourself climbing to a mountain top and looking down at yourself and your situation.  From the mountain, detach from yourself completely and look down at both yourself, the person you are interacting with, and the situation as if you were someone else completely objective witnessing the situation.

What do you see from the mountain?  What is the person providing the feedback or criticism trying to accomplish?  What is his/her viewpoint?  How can the person receiving the feedback not personalize it as an attack and respond?   (That would be you that you are watching from above)  It is amazing—but when you stand on the mountain and look down on the entire interaction rather than sit in the field in it—you can detach from and depersonalize it.  This depersonalization provides you with a less defensive stance and empowers you to act from a place of choice as if watching a scene from a play.

2.    Give the other person the benefit of the doubt

When we think we are under attack, we assume the person “attacking” us is somehow out to get us, doesn’t like us, or just doesn’t get it or us.  Negative associations begin to play in our heads and we doubt the motivation and even competence of our alleged “attacker”.  I have found over the years that while there are people who indeed have negative motives and really are out to get you, most people don’t and aren’t.  Give your perceived “attacker” the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are not really out to “get you” at all.

3.    Seek to understand the other person’s needs and viewpoint

When we are in a defensive posture, it is hard to really listen because we view the interaction as a personal attack.  If you stand on the mountain and detach your ego from the interaction itself and give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they are not really out to get you, you are poised to be able to listen for what is behind what they are telling you and learn from it.  When you are faced with a person who leaves you feeling criticized and under attack, listen to what the person is saying and be genuinely curious about what is driving the perception.  Ask questions to understand:

What does the person need more of?

What is important?

Why is the person choosing to convey this perception to you?

What future behaviors would be more effective?

Instead of defending, ask questions and listen.

Whether at work or in a personal relationship, doing these three things when you feel attacked and defensive can diffuse your defensive situation and do wonders for the outcome of the interaction.  You will be amazed at what an impact it has when you move out of a reactive stance such as defensiveness and empower yourself to choose a more creative, depersonalized response.  You are not a victim, and a defensive posture only makes you one.

I’d love to hear from you on this topic.

What do you do when you get defensive?  Have you tried any of these things I discuss above?  As always, send me a note or leave a comment with your experience…