By Dianna Booher—
During a strategic planning meeting, Bradley, senior marketing director, explained to the other executives about a promising distributorship he had recently established. Several team members went deeper into detailed questions.
Then someone asked, “What kind of performance clause do you have in the contract – just in case they don’t get it right and we have to end the agreement?”
“No such clause,” Bradley replied. “They didn’t offer it and we didn’t ask for it.”
The questioner insisted, “Not good. They could tie us in as our exclusive distributor for a few years or even longer, with only minimal sales results.”
“Yes, they could.” Bradley nodded thoughtfully.
Silence around the room.
While this distribution deal may not work out well for his organization, Bradley provided a rare response: straightforward and non-defensive. The result was useful and enlightening communication around the conference table.
But more often than not, answers to questions — especially those that may reflect a person’s judgment, decisions, or intentions — come across as defensive. They are meant to lock people up.
For example, the following five defensive habits complicate, if not close, a questioner.
Everyone has reasons for what they do or say. Our own reasons always seem right, logical, plausible and appropriate. Otherwise we wouldn’t do or say anything. That’s why it’s so easy to respond with our reasoning behind the comment, decision, or action in question.
So although someone may understand Why you’ve taken X action or made Y decision, that’s not their primary concern. In general, they speak out in response to that action or decision because they want to warn of a potential problem or offer an alternative.
Of course they might be willing to listen on your explanation at some point. But your justification is rarely their first priority.
Teens call it ghosting when a boyfriend or girlfriend suddenly stops responding to text messages, phone calls, or emails. The same thing happens in business relationships – just without the smart term to describe it.
You provide a suggestion to improve a process. Then dead silence. The other person may not respond to your suggestion at all. Or worse, they can become physically and emotionally withdrawn. Suddenly they don’t go to the cafeteria for lunch at their usual time to avoid running into you. Or they send a replacement to the department meeting instead of meeting you there.
You check whether they are sick, on vacation or working on a crucial project. No to all. nada. They just pretend that your email went to spam or your voicemail was not recorded.
Everyone except the obviously courageous colleague will give up their pursuit so as not to “become a plague” over the situation.
Playing the blame game
Then there’s the dog-at-my-homework response. They usually sound like this: “Actually, it was a committee decision.” Or: “That went above my salary. Just do what I’m told.” Or, “I was just following precedent.” Or, “They gave me old information.” Or, . . . Well, you understand how this game goes.
Yes, lying becomes a communication habit – and plain lying comes from a character flaw. Years ago, I accidentally hired a common liar and suffered the consequences — repeatedly.
One specific incident stands out: I asked Susan to prepare a client proposal to be submitted within three weeks for a potentially highly profitable consulting project. While I occasionally ‘checked in’ with her to ask how the proposal would come about, she always replied with ‘Are you okay’.
“What if I take a look at what you’ve done so far to see if I can give you even more direction?” Admittedly, I was a little cranky because it was her first proposal with our firm.
“I’ll get you a draft shortly.”
As the days went on, no proposal to revise.
A week later, I asked again, ‘How’s the proposal going? About ready? I’d like to see a concept now instead of waiting for the absolute deadline when it has to go out – just in case we need to tweak it a bit.”
“I don’t like to have my concepts reviewed until they’re perfect. It is almost finished. I’ll send the final to you in a few days.’
Still no proposal for my review.
The day before the proposal was due to be submitted to the client, I stopped by Susan’s office and insisted that I see a copy of her “nearly completed” proposal. Reluctantly, she printed it and brought it to my office.
The “nearly done” proposal was less than a page — basically a bulleted list of the ideas I proposed the day I delegated the writing project.
Nothing original. Nothing “finished” – by any imagination. So at the proverbial ‘ninth hour’ I spent all night writing the proposal myself rather than losing the opportunity for the client.
Susan’s habit of lying continued until the day she left the company.
Attacking someone’s style, motives, or creative suggestions usually comes wrapped in a humorous response; sarcasm seems to be a favored rejection stimulus. For example: “Sure, Sanjay! Let’s all just do that – and the sooner the better!” Or, “Yeah, right, Gregory. Who needs marketing anyway? We have customers who just come to our door and buy this screwed-up widget.” Or, “Gee, Jason. What an original idea! I bet less than a billion reps have already tried that.”
Whether cynicism or sarcasm, such out-of-control layoffs discourage further discussion. And that is often the goal with a defensive leader.
All of these common communication tactics either destroy trust in leaders or force the other person into a “challenging” position. Only the brave push harder for more appropriate responses and information.
Dianna Booher is the bestselling author of 49 books, including: Communicate like a leader. She helps organizations to communicate clearly. Follow her on BooherResearch.com and @DiannaBooher.