Defensiveness Can Be Offensive

Relax. What you mistake for a hostile question could actually be a chance for you to make a friend

By Liz Ryan

I was nervously sitting in a management meeting after I had become the company's human resources manager four weeks earlier. At the advanced age of 24, wasn't the most sophisticated cookie in the tin. My predecessor, who still worked for the company but in a different department, began peppering me with questions about the status of HR initiatives.

"What about the supervisory development training program -- how is that coming along?" she asked.

"Um, we hope to launch that by the end of the quarter."

"And the new vision-care plan, where does that stand?"

"We have three quotes from vendors, and we're reviewing them."

I was sweating.


  I was also an idiot, because if I had discarded my defensive attitude for three seconds, it might have given me the presence of mind to say: "I'm so pleased to get these important initiatives -- many of which have been in progress for several years -- to completion." But I was too green and insecure to think of anything like that.

So I kept answering my interrogator like a prisoner in custody. Finally, another manager -- my friend Eileen -- chimed in with a question.

"Liz, let's hear about the planned orientation program for new employees." I shot her an "et tu, Brute?" look and said sulkily: "It's coming along." I was too far gone to see that she was throwing me a softball -- based on my telling her, just the day before, how beautifully the orientation program was shaping up. In my embattled state, I heard her question as just another assault.


  Later, I apologized to Eileen. "I was so freaked out," I said. "I couldn't see that you were trying to help me." She said, "It's O.K. We've all been there."

Why do even the most mild tempered of us, under stress, mistake a helping hand for a poison dart? Because of the mental state that takes over when we feel attacked. Our sensors scream, Danger! Danger! And our judgment suddenly falters. We assume someone is criticizing us in front of our peers, and rational thought goes out the window. All systems on full alert!

And with little or no reflection, we pinpoint our attacker's motives: He hates me -- he has always hated me. She's from billing, and those people always have an ax to grind. He's a product manager, and he has no respect for engineers.


  In truth, we may have no idea why colleagues pose certain queries. They may not intend to wound at all but, once we've interpreted things that way, our defensive mode takes over. We're ready to give as good as we've gotten.

So, a simple question such as "Do you expect customer support hold times to decline when we install the new call-processing system?" can sound like "Will this latest innovation finally fix the hold-time problem that you've unsuccessfully battled for years now?" Our minds can reshape the most innocent remark into a vicious assault. It happens to the best of us.

I recommend using a simple technique when your defense shield springs up. Next time you hear something that sounds threatening, don't get defensive, or at least resist the temptation to lash out. Instead, say: "I'd like to know more about that. Tell me what you're thinking."


  Here's what's likely to happen: The person you suspect of mocking your mediocre hold-time metrics says: "I'm just hoping that if the technology brings us up to the industry standard, you'll finally get approval for your other projects." Oh, O.K. then. You are friend, not foe. I guess I didn't know what you were thinking after all.

Two unfortunate things happen when you jump to the conclusion that someone is blasting you. First, of course, you may say something you'll regret. What seemed incisive as you were composing it in your mind comes out of your mouth sounding forced and lame.

Second, you're likely to miss the value of a worthwhile question from a supportive -- or at least, not necessarily hostile -- colleague. So, instead of shooting for a searing Dorothy Parker riposte, pose the question: What's on your mind?


  As much as ask-don't-blast makes sense for in-person conversations, it's even more crucial for e-mails. How often have you hastily read a co-worker's e-mail message and seen a put-down where none existed? The best example I've ever heard came from my friend Holly. Her boss stormed into her office, red in the face. "What do you mean, saying you resent my message?" Replied Holly. "I re-sent your message. I sent it again, since you didn't receive it the first time."

That brings me to another point: If despite your better judgment, you decide to write a hostile e-mail, no matter how many times you proofread it, the message is guaranteed to contain at least one typo or usage error. Always! This is the universe's way of putting us in our place, of reminding us to pipe down, sleep on it, and not get so keyed-up so quickly.

E-mail messages composed in anger are the worst. Someday, someone will put up a Web site with a collection of these awful, arch, let-me-put-you-in-your-place messages. Just a few days later, these things look ridiculous. E-mail is just not a good way to convey bad feelings, especially when you try to get literary and erudite about it.


  Who hasn't received one of these messages at one time or another, and who hasn't composed one? Dripping with sarcasm, glittering with $10 words, these agitated missives take the prize for silliness. They don't accomplish anything, and reading one of your own e-mail salvos a month or two down the road usually results in major embarrassment, because it's grandiose, overreaching, petty, or arrogant.

These are the kinds of messages that co-workers take delight in reading aloud in a funny accent -- not that I've ever done that, of course. If you're really that angry and don't mind burning a bridge, it would be quicker and more honest to write: "Go take a flying leap, Waldo."

Generally, though, reacting impulsively helps nothing. It raises your blood pressure. And when you're so quick to see enemies on every side, you'll overlook a friendly word or gesture when offered. Who among us can afford to do that?

Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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