Defensive Reactions

Invoking or engaging in defensive behavior will always hamper productive discussion. It is generally fine to discuss past actions or current procedures when the facts are discernable and recordable, but if the discourse extends beyond observable actions to intended motives, accusations are likely to be made between parties. When people feel accused, they tend to grow defensive.

An excellent way to avoid accusations and the defensive reactions that accompany them is to stick to chronicling actions. Then, ask questions about a particular party’s intent instead of trying to infer motives from those actions.

Let’s consider a situation related to environmental risk at an oil and gas production site. When we talk about risk, we mean the probability that a person or the environment will experience an adverse health effect or be harmed if exposed to a hazard. The severity of the possible harm increases the risk; and a higher likelihood to exposure also increases risk.

For example, say a regulatory agency field inspector is suggesting that an operator move the location of a storage tank to reduce risk associated with runoff into a nearby creek if the tank were to leak. The inspector cannot change the potential adverse harm to the environment if runoff were to occur. But, the inspector can recommend actions to reduce the possibility that a leak results in runoff to the creek. The inspector is trying to help the operator move forward with the lowest risk of contaminating the environment and prevent any fines that would result from a potential accident. However, the operator might interpret this as an accusation of malpractice, or an attempt to cause unnecessary difficulties in operations, and react defensively. This misunderstanding can be prevented or dealt with if both parties articulate their goals and intentions honestly and listen to each other.

In the event that an inadvertent accusation elicits a defensive reaction, the situation needs to be brought back on track or at least to a point of better mutual understanding. A reminder that we should not try to infer or assume people’s motivations without asking them productive questions, as these are crucial to understanding and managing the source of defensive reactions. Sometimes a defensive reaction that seems to be covering up malicious intent is merely associated with an unintentional oversight.

Questions are an integral part of the overall strategy for handling difficulties and differences in communications. Remember that questions can be framed in an accusatory or non-accusatory way, and strive to ask questions that give the respondent room to express their feelings safely. For example, say you have inadvertently accused someone of misconduct and they are reacting defensively. Instead of asking “why are you being so defensive?”, you might ask “what was it about what I said that may have come across as an accusation?” This opens the dialog and allows both parties to investigate the cause of the misunderstanding.

Images: “Wolf” by Kjetil Kolbjornsrud via Shutterstock; “pump jack” by Mad Dog via Shutterstock