One of the most insidious challenges we must deal with as we continue our daily trek is the fact that most people would rather blame others for their circumstances than place at least part of the blame where it certainly belongs: With themselves. We even have a term for this: Defensiveness.
When I speak with audiences there is an almost universal agreement that this is one of the core challenges that they deal with on a daily basis. Whether they are speaking with a family member, or a peer, their boss, or perhaps an employee: we all struggle with the desire to help someone make progress. Unfortunately, too often they seem preoccupied with deflecting responsibility onto someone or something else.
Some years ago one of my mentors, Bob Proctor, taught me that when we are presented with a new idea – or at least one that conflicts with what we believe to be true, we have a choice to make. We can choose to learn from that idea or we can choose to attack that idea and defend what we know to be true. But we cannot do both. Now if we were to be honest, most people would have to agree that it is hard to be open minded about ideas that are presented to us that conflict with what our experience has shown us to be true. And yet that is the very challenge we are faced with when people we seek to influence are defensive with what we communicate to them.
What we really want is for them to be open minded – in other words we want their mind to be open to the possibility that they could learn and that the idea may actually help them. Unfortunately, our process for getting them to change their minds is flawed.
Instead of opening their minds to the possibility that their understanding of what is happening is flawed, we instead encourage the very defensiveness that frustrates our ability to assist them in making a positive change. In other words, we try to argue people into changing their minds. Rarely does this work, so we up the ante and increase the volume and intensity of our dialogue. Even if this results in a temporary change in behavior – it is too often short lived, and the person reverts to their previous behavior pattern.
So then how do we coach positive change in another person?
It is actually easier than you may think.
As a leader, we are often told to ‘walk the talk’ or ‘model that which we expect from others’.
Unfortunately, we tend to interpret this in the narrowest sense – we should arrive on time if we want others to do so, we should work hard if we want others too etc. While all of these habits are a great start – they are really just the price of admission to being able to ‘lead effectively’.
So what should we do?
The answer is to model the very behaviors we desire in those we seek to lead. So, if we want people to be in ‘learning’ mode rather than ‘defensive’ mode – we need to model that behavior ourselves.
When faced with this challenge, leaders often look perplexed as they believe they already are in ‘learning’ mode. And, of course, they often are. The question is – are the in ‘learning’ mode when they are interacting with the people they seem to model the behavior for? That’s when it counts – when they see you making an effort to learn (interpret this as understand) their perspective on a change you are seeking them to make.
Try this experiment next time you are faced with defensiveness from another person: Set aside the need to be right and ask questions to understand their perspective. That does not mean they are right and you should accept their answers as facts, however it does mean that you listen and really try to understand why they feel the way they do. You will find that the emotion in the dialogue decreases, they open up and you actually can have a conversation rather than an argument.
The reason this works is that when we are in ‘defensive’ mode we are almost always talking. When we are in ‘learning’ mode we are almost always listening. So, to model ‘learning’ behavior we must listen. Only then will you understand how the other person sees the issue.