Keeping Conflict Productive: The Art of Self-Regulation and Disrupting Defensiveness

Have you ever wondered why we get defensive? Defensiveness is a part of being human. It is one of many strategies we use to protect us from feelings of threat and social pain. These threats attack our sense of identity, our emotional significance within a group, our competence, and our likeability. The threats are often small but feel significant. For example, being kept out of the loop on information can impact our sense of emotional significance within a group. An unexpected cc on an email or critical comments about our work in front of others can trigger fears that we lack competence. Our identity being disparaged or feeling left out of a social activity impacts our view on whether others like us.  

The book Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships (Tamm, James & Luyet, Roland) discusses how to mitigate and redirect or defensiveness in appropriate and healthy ways. We may think that the way to avoid this is to simply stop being defensive. However, it’s not that simple. Defensiveness-when understood-can provide vital information. Our goal shouldn’t be to remove defensiveness. Our goal should be to understand when it’s happening so that we can mitigate it in the moment and learn from it on reflection.  

To do this we have to first understand what our defensive triggers are and when they are happening. Think back to a time when you felt defensive in a situation. How were you feeling? Did your heartbeat speed up? Did you feel hot or cold? Did your stomach begin to ache? The physical sensation of defensiveness is often the first thing we experience. Once we understand that we may be feeling defensive, it’s important to acknowledge that’s happening and to take an appropriate time-out from the situation so that we can re-engage in a collaborative way.  

Want to learn more? Join Jenn Mahony, Ombuds Director, Boston Children’s Hospital, on March 22 from 12-12:30pm MT for a University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office “Small bites. Big impact.” Lunch and Learn to better understand and manage defensiveness. Register HERE.

By: Jenn Mahony, Ombuds Director, Boston Children’s Hospital

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