Defensiveness is the enemy of learning and change. How many times have you tried to give someone important information about their performance, presentation, appearance, behavior only to have them respond defensively and even get angry and attack you? How did their response make you feel? Did you find yourself avoiding them or hesitant to tell them other things?

Turn that around. How many times has someone tried to tell you something and you responded defensively? When you become defensive, your information reception center is turned off or very diminished. As a result, you do not receive the information and cannot use it to make adjustments to your behavior. At the same time, your defensiveness often turns the other person off so they will not give you important information in the future. This seriously limits your ability to grow and change and ultimately creates a feedback isolation bubble around you. No one will take the risk of telling you something for fear of your defensiveness.

You don't think this pertains to you? In my 37 years of working with people, I can count on one hand the number of people that seemed to have their defensiveness under control. Chances are, you are not one of them and neither am I.

A key secret to personal growth is to train yourself to control or eliminate defensive responses to observations and information others give you. Second, give a heartfelt "thank you" to the person telling you, and a promise to consider their information, BUT do not promise to change at that moment. (They just gave you a gift that they otherwise could have withheld or worse, told someone else behind your back.)

Third, evaluate the information later, quietly and thoughtfully to determine what you can and cannot use. Make no promises to change, just a promise to consider.

This simple technique will do more than all the self help books on the planet to improve your personal relationships and work performance. As you get better at it, you will find that people trust you and listen to you more. They will come to respect you because you don't strike back in defense when given negative information. This will lead to more information coming your way. Remember, information is power. If people withhold it because you are defensive, you become less powerful.

Remember this quote: "Defensive people do not change, because defensive people cannot listen."
Darrel Ray, Teaming Up, (McGraw-Hill) 1995  Secular Therapist Project

If you are looking for a good secular therapist, go to first.

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Comment by Tammy S on July 25, 2012 at 11:59am

Darrel I shared this with some family and friends with credit given of course and links included.  I've tried this approach to dealing with difficult people and can confirm it does indeed work, it's hard sometimes to take your own ego and desire for immediate gratification out of the equation and take a little abuse, it's a bit like training abused animals for re-entry into public. Thank you for sharing!

Comment by Steph S. on July 24, 2012 at 12:17pm
I think Loren Miller hits the "nail on the head" with his reply. I second that reply.
Ditto Loren!
Comment by Frankie Dapper on July 24, 2012 at 12:09pm

Yeah, I am pretty sure it was the God Virus, not positive. I meme it was my first introduction to that form of thinking and I am still without a firm conviction.

Comment by Darrel Ray on July 24, 2012 at 11:55am
Glen, I am not sure to what you are referring? The God Virus or one of my earlier books?
Comment by Darrel Ray on July 24, 2012 at 11:52am

Loren, your comment is well taken with respect to giving feedback. I am not focusing on that in this post. I am focusing on what you can do to control yourself. We have little control over another person's skill or approach except we can easily turn them off with our response. When I work with defensive people, they most generally expect the world to consider their feelings more and approach them differently. They live in a fantasy land when they hold that belief and approach. If they expect others to be skillful in giving feedback they will be disappointed far more often than not. Take care of yourself and your response AND you will see that the world actually changes in response to you. As I said, you will receive more trust and respect. The biggest mistake most people make is expecting the world to change to suit them. As a result, they remain defensive and have great difficulty understanding why they are not more successful, more loved, more respected, more trusted. They also find themselves striking out at the world in frustration, but it is frustration brought on by their own unskilled response to information the world is giving them. As Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and they is us!"

Comment by Loren Miller on July 24, 2012 at 11:24am

People who are used to being attacked or questioned as a matter of course are naturally going to develop defensive tendencies.  Been there, done that, the T-shirt's a rag.  The person delivering feedback, particularly of a negative nature, should be conscious of this and consider his audience before going into such a situation blindly.  Negative feedback, delivered without consideration, will in many cases cause the recipient of such feedback to shut down or go defensive.  The same feedback delivered with a degree of empathy and couched as an opportunity for improvement, for example, may allow for further opening of communication and a better relationship between the two parties.

Granted that the above represents only one scenario regarding defensive responses to external input.  Still, I have seen and experienced it enough myself to suggest it warrants more than superficial consideration.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on July 24, 2012 at 11:21am

Mr. Ray, if I could remember it well enough, I would critique a book you wrote and I read some years ago-really put you to the test.

I like what you have written here. So true. So tough to do!

Comment by Edward Teach on July 24, 2012 at 11:15am

I like the use of stories and metaphors to communicate messages about change. Humans are pretty much wired for stories, and the therapeutic message is often able to by-pass ego defenses.



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