Ever had an emotional response that was immediate, overwhelming and disproportionate to what the other person did or said?
Did the situation feel like a significant emotional threat?
“Now you’re overreacting. I think you’re getting defensive!”
“YES! I TOTALLY AM!! BUT I CANNOT STOP IT! Oh, and I won’t admit it either!”
And when you think about it later, you can’t even remember or factually describe what worried you exactly! It’s like you had a total loss of brain capacity.
What is happening in these moments?
Your ego is trying to defend you! It wants the best for you and preserve you from harm. To avoid serious danger from hitting you, it uses a flight, a fight, or a freeze response.
But guess what: In 99% of cases your ego is over-reacting, seeing snakes and dangers where there are none. Then all that adrenaline comes in between you and your talents, your best self, and your success!
Here are a couple of real life examples:
- The client says: “Oh, maybe Manuela can tell us more about XYZ topic (not related to the context of the meeting), given that should really be YOUR expertise.” My mind going into overdrive: “Oh my God, I’m not prepared for this. No matter what I say now, they’ll think I’m stupid. But how can she do that? She always puts me on the spot. In fact, why are we working with her organization in the first place?” (Black and white thinking)
- Boss asks: “Why is this concept note late? Please make sure to get this to me by 9am tomorrow” – At 9:30am the boss will find a document full of typos in their inbox, with key sections missing that were agreed on earlier.
- There’s a guy in the office, who naturally connects well with people and has great ideas of fun team activities. And to put the icing on the cake, he loves food! When he’s asked to organize an office chill-out for end month, he agrees, but goes quiet until the day of the event.
- Watching colleague making a mistake, bad decision or just be really slow in solving a challenge. Thinking: “She’s been here much longer than me. If I tell her now that I have an idea for her, she might take it badly. Let me play it cool and not offer my advice.”
- Over coffee with a colleague: “Hey! I need your advice. My manager always does a, b and c“. “I think you should try to look at it from their perspective. That day he really needed that report from you, and I imagine that he was disappointed that you didn’t….” “No! You see the problem in that situation was actually that my computer wasn’t working and also on that day, … (Goes on with endless rationalizing until the other person gets frustrated and mentally checks out.)
To make things worse, being defensive also sours your relationships over time. Here is an interesting medium post talking about how these impulsive moments (also called amygdala hijacks) create toxic workplaces.
It’s time to stop the vicious cycle!
You have weak areas (sure thing, we all do) and should be developing them instead of fighting the process.
No matter if you’re 25 or 65, you can work on your ego defence mechanisms!
The first step is to recognize your signs of defensiveness: What do you do and how does your body feel, when it happens? Through self-observation, over time you become more and more aware of what triggers you. Don’t blame yourself, just observe it. Then you can transform your reactions to these triggers, by staying level-headed in the moment and asking yourself if this is really a snake, or possibly simply a colleague who’s trying to succeed on a joint project with you.
At edge we’ve been working on this topic for a few years now. We regularly sit together and reflect on our signs of defensiveness. We tell each other what happens when we get triggered, and what we want to work on. We celebrate progress and make fun of ourselves. We discuss our triggers in the team and we show support to each other when the amygdala shows up.
These conversations create truly collaborative environments, where we easily ask each other for help and ideas. Where asking for clarification is standard procedure, and making assumptions around the other person’s intentions happens less and less.
Do you think you or your team would benefit from this conversation as well?