4 Defense Mechanisms that Emerge During Difficult Conversations

In life you will have to say things you’d rather not say. This could be for the betterment of a family, work group, or social circle.  Having difficult conversations is a sign of personal growth and shows a desire to help others with their growth.  It’s a teaching role, and it’s challenging.Firstly, I want to point out that periodically taking on this role is a hallmark for any caring relationship. The opportunities to have these talks will naturally come about as your understanding of another individual grows. While not always obvious, please know that putting yourself through the discomfort of giving meaningful feedback is a truly generous act.

Often it causes the recipient of the feedback to face behaviors they want to avoid. Because of this when you approach the topic, there is a chance that you will see their defense mechanism in response. When I first became a manager, I attended a people skills class which called out four defense mechanism that I have experienced in the years since.

  • Silence – When you offer feedback and it’s met with silence, it’s just plain awkward. The user of this defense mechanism wants you to feel uncomfortable and/or embarrassed that you are attempting the conversation. In this way he is testing your confidence and also sending a message that he is an unwilling participant in the discussion. Handle this by asking open ended questions – nothing that could illicit a yes/no response – forcing him to speak. Always end this conversation with a verbal acknowledgment of why the conversation happened.
  • Fake Agreement – This person is essentially saying what she thinks you want to hear. This is a tough nut to crack because it’s hard to restructure a conversation filled with agreeableness. When I encounter this, I take a similar approach to that used for Silence. I ask her to tell me what she can do to change the behavior. This forces the person to do more than say “uh-huh” and “I see.” Now she has to consider the root of the behavior and offer a solution.
  • Deflection – This person detours the conversation repeatedly. If you are not on guard, you can start a conversation about a person’s tardiness and end it talking about the unfair treatment of camels in the Sahara. Ok this is an exaggeration, but it will feel this bizarre when you fall prey to this style. I admit that this is the defense mechanism I struggle with most because I think it’s the most exhausting. Knowing this, I buoy myself by making a written note of the point I want to make. This anchors me and makes it easier for me to repeatedly say, “I understand and we can talk about that another time. For now, I want to come back to my point.” I wish I was exaggerating when I tell you that I once used that phrase seven times in a 30 minute meeting.
  • Extreme Emotion – Anger or crying are typically seen in this case. When you experience this, there is only one way to proceed. Say, “This conversation is important, would you like a moment to calm down before we continue?” People who exhibit this defense mechanism may do it intentionally, but I think it’s often a natural reaction. Usually it develops in their youth because parents may stop scolding a child who gets into a fit of anger or crying. My suspicion is that it remains as a tool of avoidance in adulthood because these two emotions make people the most uncomfortable, especially in a work setting. Therefore, to get your point across you must stay calm, and let them know the conversation can pause while they collect themselves, but that it is not over.

It’s been my experience that when people act coarsely it’s because they don’t realize how badly they are coming off or because they are upset and are passive aggressively making a point. Having the conversation hopefully leads to resolution. Sometimes, however, the person you confront is unwilling to accept any culpability for his actions. Unfortunately, in these cases I have no great advice and these are the people I eventually cut out of my personal and work life.

The goal of having difficult conversations is to help somebody or a relationship by shedding light on a poor pattern of behavior, and to inspire reflection and growth. Ultimately however, the old saying holds true. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

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