Defensiveness ruins communication
Lessons learnt from Liz Truss’s defensive communication style
Defensiveness creates blind spots in decision-making. When individual and groups respond defensively problems go unrecognised, victims go unacknowledged, and relationships deteriorate. *
The crime of ‘defensive communication’ is committed by many — I will have been guilty of it for sure. I could cite many examples, but it would be a waste not to use our recent PM Liz Truss as a reference point.
What is going on when we get all defensive during communication. What are the drivers of defensivness? What can we do to become less defensive?
Let’s do the forensics on some of Liz Truss’s communication defaults.
Caveat: I don’t know Liz personally. I’m an observer. I will apply my communication knowledge to share a best guess stab at why Liz failed to engage and engender trust.
There are more barriers than defensiveness — including the actual content of what is said — but let’s focus on defensiveness. As a behaviour it is a key communication spoiler.
The Symptoms of Liz Truss’s defensiveness
For ease of reference I will keep these forensics to bullet points!
Liz Truss defaults included:
- Scripted answers that didn’t answer the question.
- Agressive, unatural body language.
- Looking for the next point to score or facesaving approach — rather than listening.
The Effects of Liz Truss’s defensiveness
- Trust and empathy deficit. No connection.
- Lack of clarity (despite her constant ‘Let me be clear’ repetition.)
- The multiplying effect on herself — by not being authentic she became even more defensive.
The (probable) Drivers of Liz Truss’s defensiveness
- Lack of real confidence. There is a limit to ‘fake it til you make it’.
- Poor communication skills. Basic inability to treat communication as a shared process.
- Excess of ego! Hubris blinded her ability to show any uncertainty or vulnerability.
How to avoid being defensive
If I was coaching Liz Truss — and focussing on defensiveness — what would be the top 5 behaviour and mindset shifts we would work on?
- Be prepared and, crucially, understand what you are saying.
- Open body language — be comfortable.
- Be curious — seek to learn and consider different perspectives.
- See ‘admitting mistakes and asking questions’ as a strength not a weakness.
- Don’t be afraid of ‘the pause’. Reflective thinking is human.
Why is ‘connecting’ crucial to effective communication?
With a sigh of relief I share a photo of the lovely Stephen Mangan, who I place high up the ‘connecting communicators’ chart!
I accept the charge that Stephen is an actor and comediean not a politician — so surely he has more chance of being ‘liked’.
However — not all actors and comedians are likable.
I accept that people like Stephen are unlikely to become politicians — sadly.
(And here is the nub of the issue …)
They would be forced into a performative box that would crush their soul.
They would struggle to be themselves.
But the ‘being natural’ ingredient is part of the ability to connect.
There seems to be no space for being natural as a high profile politician. They are hounded by media hungry for sensational sound bites and ‘gotya’ scoops. They are attacked for being too stuffy, too street, too outspoken or too guarded.
They become wedded to their saftey shield of defensiveness.
There are certain key ingredients of making a connection with people — and they all get crushed with the defensiveness shield carried by many politicians — but not all politicians.
Can I give some non-defensive politician examples? What high profile UK politicians have the knack of connecting with their audience from a lectern, media studio or stage?
- Caroline Lucas
- Dominic Grieve (sorry I had to go back in time)
These are the top 3 traits of connecting communicators:
You are present. You want to understand the perspective of those you are communicating with. You ask questions.
Practicing the art of ‘yes and’ — a tactic used in improvisation.
You ask questions without fear of ‘looking weak’. You are prepared to learn or even have a change of heart. You seek out common ground through genuine, non self-conscious exploration. You are not out to win — you display confidence through allowing your ideas to be questioned.
Open body language.
You smile — as in your natural smile.
You use eye contact — without forced glaring!
You adopt warm body language — leaning in, head to one side a little when listening — showing that you really are listening.
To sum up — some thought-provoking quotes on defensiveness
When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.
Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it.
Defensiveness if listening with your defenses up. It’s being quick to react and slow to consider. Listeners who listen at others take issue with everything they’re saying.
But communication is a two way process — so we have to play our part in discouraging defensiveness as well as avoiding it ourselves.
Seek to find the win-win and focus on the problem not the person. Nurture an environment of curiosity.
Beth Rigby, along with all high profile journalists and interviewers, is looking for those sound bite gems — it’s her job.
You can also see it with the leader of the opposition at PMQs. He wants the PM to get all defensiveness and even lose it!
Surely the world would be a better place if those with a platform adopted a very different approach — but that’s wishful thinking.
Each of us can set that example though.
With a bit of coaxing, curiosity can reemerge if leaders create a safe environment in which asking why is both encouraged and rewarded.
REF: Flinders University. (2020, December 1). Why people become defensive and how to address it: Addressing why defensiveness manifests will help relationships, conflict management and decision making to reduce defensiveness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201201103610.htm
Liz Truss Beth Rigby interview — Sky
Liz Truss Final PMQs — House of Commons
Defensiveness is just one of many barriers to effective (and enjoyable) communication. I work with individuals — solopreneurs to senior executives — on making conversations, meetings and presentations engage!
I also explore inner barriers — self-inflicted ‘self-squashing’ traps, in my book ‘The Mystery of the Squashed Self’ and my TEDx talk — ‘Beware the Self Squashing Prophecy’.