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Refocus Critical Conversations that Go Off-Track

Tips for Handling Defensive People in Critical Conversations

People naturally defend themselves and their opinion when they receive feedback during a critical conversation. But when someone’s on the defensive, how can you steer a critical conversation back on track?

When someone goes on the defensive, don’t back down — doing so undercuts the conversation. Instead, recognize the individual’s opinion and ask him to focus on the purpose of the meeting before defending his position.

For example, you may say, “I can see how you may have strong opinions about the feedback. I’m hoping we can work together to get clarity on the real reasons for the issue, and then we can look at the pros and cons of possible solutions.”

By delaying the defensive reaction, you may find that the other individual starts to understand the rational facts, instead of just voicing his emotional reaction.

State what’s happening and explain that conflict over problems, solutions, and ideas is natural. Then ask whether the other person is willing to focus on gaining a clear understanding of the problem before making judgment.

If the defensive behavior is focused on everything that could go wrong or what went wrong in the past — talk about what could happen and what is possible.

For example, you could say, “I see that there are many reasons why things didn’t work in the past. This conversation is about fixing these issues in the future. Are you willing to focus on the future and what can be done to make change happen?”

This statement doesn’t discount the past, but it’s really hard to make excuses for things that are going to happen in the future. It may also be helpful to have a back-up plan for all the items on the action plan. If you have a clear plan for what to do when something unexpected happens, you can limit the number of excuses you may hear in the future.

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