Stop Playing the Game – Managing Defensive Behaviour

Managing Defensive Behaviour

Stop Playing the Game – Managing Defensive Behaviour

Everyone’s triggers are different, and there are innumerable reasons why someone reacts and behaves defensively.  The problem with being defensive is that once triggered, our natural stress response takes over and we become even more defensive.

In developing his world-famous FIRO theory, Will Schutz established the ‘C=P Effect’. Compatibility — the ability to work well together — is directly related to productivity. The more people on a team have similar preferences for the way they act with one another, the more effective the team becomes. But Schutz also discovered that only about 75% of compatible teams could be judged as productive. What about the other 25%?  He finally concluded that the reason teams still got stuck, even when they are compatible, is not because people are different, but rather because one or more people become defensive, and rigid in their behaviour. Defensive behaviour in relationships is therefore not only difficult and uncomfortable – it tangibly impacts results negatively.

We get stuck because negative energy is much stronger than positive, and when triggered, we feed it – with doubt, negative self-talk, skewed perceptions of others behaviours (for instance assuming poor intent behind actions), even a perception that threat is everywhere. In her book, ‘Flourishing’ Maureen Gaffney describes how it takes only 4 pieces of information to turn positive to a negative, but it takes 9 pieces of information to turn a negative to a positive. In short, being defensive is easy, because negativity takes less energy!

Our self-awareness is diminished when we are defensive, and as a result, it is entirely possible that other people are more aware of our defensiveness, in the moment, than we are. As social beings, we have become highly competent at reading other’s non-verbal signals and connecting with their emotions.  This is emotional contagion, and it has ensured the survival of animals in social groups for millennia. In our personal relationships, it can also be the catalyst for transferring defensive behaviour from one person to another. As one person gives off defensive signals, our emotional centre responds and becomes triggered into defensiveness, and we all start to play the game.

Most of us have ‘trigger people’ in our lives – those individuals whose mere presence can trigger us to feel defensive, with whom we can never seem to connect, or always disagree or even have open conflict. After typing those words, I can immediately picture 2 people who operate in this role in my life!  So, let’s explore why. Reflecting on Schutz’s notion of compatibility, it is possible that the people we find challenging or difficult, are in fact just different from us, and we therefore have low compatibility.  Low compatibility may lead to us experiencing poor or challenging communication, awkward or low social interaction, feeling ignored or feeling overwhelmed by someone, or always experiencing a difference of opinion. All of these can trigger our defence response, and we respond by confronting (fight), avoiding (flight) or ignoring (freeze) the source.

Referencing emotional contagion, these reactions may trigger a defence response in the other person, and the game is on!  Once we are defensive, we feed the perception that the other person is at fault, and so continue to play the same roles every time we meet – often before we have even interacted.  Worse still, this is not confined to personal relationships – once our perception is formed, it may latch on to a particular trait that we see in groups of people, this grows into a belief and becomes the foundation for full-scale prejudice.  So how do we stop playing the game? How do we manage relationships with defensive people?


Stop Playing the Game How to manage defensive behaviour?


  1. Check-in after the last time (and the time before that): When you have a challenging interaction or relationship, it is very easy to blame the other party and look for confirmation that we are correct. But it is rare for conflict to operate one way. A key question then, is what was YOUR role in the last (or indeed every!) interaction? You cannot control someone else’s defensiveness, but you can control your reaction to it.  Did you feed the negative?


  1. Recognise your default role: Most of us engage with 1 or more of the ‘dramatic’ roles when defensive, and this generates an opposite response.  If we play persecutor, people may be pushed into the victim role.  If we play the victim, we may invite them to become the persecutor. Pushing our way in or becoming too involved results in us playing the role of rescuer, which others may respond to by rebelling and refusing to engage with if they did not invite us in.  Check-in with your actions – when triggered by or triggering others, are you assuming one of the dramatic roles?


  1. Focus on actual behaviour – perception does not prove intent: Once we mentally label someone as ‘difficult’ or ‘defensive’, we see that label every time we meet them and focus on actions that confirm our perception.  We may even attach meaning or intent without proof.  I recently observed this between 2 people who have a challenging dynamic. One is an extraverted thinker who is competitive, expressive and blunt in their communication style.  Their introverted feeling colleague is quiet, reserved and sensitive to others. Their compatibility is therefore fairly low. However, in a rational state (‘bottom of the triangle’), their different perspectives on the world could be a great opportunity for collaboration and cognitive diversity. In their generally triggered state however, they constantly read meaning into the other’s actions.  While waiting to meet with them I observed the extraverted thinker, in a rush from his previous meeting, running to grab a coffee in order to be back in time for our discussion. As he joined the meeting, his colleague looked up and whispered to me, ”See, he didn’t even ask if I wanted a coffee – he really doesn’t like me.” Feelings hurt, she disengaged from the discussion and her colleague, while he grew more frustrated at her silence, his time being wasted and the purpose of the meeting not being achieved.  My observation – his fear of being late meant he simply forgot to consider her.


  1. Choose to show up different: In relationships where we have known the person for a long time or have lots of interaction with them, we may have become stuck by falling back into the same defensive roles each time we meet.  By checking in with ourselves before the next interaction, when we are more rational and have the ability to be flexible, we can choose to show up and react differently. If the other person demonstrates behaviours that trigger us, instead of a default defensive response, we can choose an alternative.  In the example above, the colleague with the coffee could choose to slow down and ask his colleague how she is.  His colleague could choose to assume that no offence was intended by a lack of coffee, he may have simply been distracted or may have been pushed for time.  By choosing a non-defensive reaction, we avoid triggering the other person, but also enable ourselves to remain nearer the rational zone.  By consciously practicing a non-defensive response, over time the dynamic can genuinely be reset.


  1. Clear the air and choose to reset: Taking the actions outlined above on your own, won’t go far if you don’t engage with the other person to reset the dynamic. Plan how you can share your observations of the relationship dynamic with the other person (without blame), focusing on what can be changed or different, rather than what has happened in the past and who was at fault. Create an agreement of how you will both show up in future.  If it helps, ask a neutral third party to help mediate the conversation.


  1. Last Resort: Choose not to play: Sometimes, no matter how much we adapt and flex, it’s possible that the other person is simply so defensive, perhaps in response to triggers outside of the relationship, that they cannot or will not manage their reactions and responses.  If this is the case, and you have tried all avenues above to reset the dynamic, it may in fact be the case that the dynamic cannot be improved.  In such a situation if may be best to accept the lack of compatibility and disengage from the relationship. Note that this will also require you to let go of how you felt in the relationship and moving on – otherwise you may find yourself encouraging others to play the game on your behalf – by whispering to someone else about the lack of coffee.


Paula Nugent

With over 25 years’ experience in Learning and Development in Retail, Financial Services and Customer Services in Ireland and the UK, Paula has held a number of Consultant and Management roles. She has extensive experience in the fields of consultancy, learning design, facilitation and coaching and prides herself on a partnership approach with clients. Paula has expertise across a broad range of individual, organisational and team development interventions, and is highly skilled in bringing objectives and goals to life through creative, authentic and engaging design and facilitation. Paula specialises in programme development in the areas of Leadership and Management Development and Retail Service and Sales skills and behaviours.

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