A Coaching Power Tool By Flo Cheever, Personal Relationships and Life Mastery Coach, UNITED STATES
What Is the Difference Between Understanding vs. Defensiveness?
I based my Power Tool upon a powerful “shift” I experienced several years ago, where I found myself trying to find the cause of an imbalance and growing opposition in a relationship. As I looked at the projections of our behaviors there was a divide ahead that could have been quite damaging and possibly insurmountable. As I analyzed our actions, I felt myself defending my position—”well, I’m a good, considerate person, how can it be that I feel attacked so often?” Then I considered the environment and perspective of the other person and a doorway seemed to open up in my mind that led to their realm of thinking and provided understanding for me. This understanding—empathy– was the tool for approaching healing, seeking common ground, building positives, and changing the course of the relationship. I see how this change in perspective can be empowering in a wide range of interactions, e.g., personal relationships, work environments, scholastic settings, communities, and even on a global scale. Overcoming Defensiveness requires a selfless perspective, a willingness to change, and giving up an ego-centric constant. This stance allows us to be flexible and step into the realm of possibilities and… understanding. As we consider the desirability of giving up defenses, we must acknowledge the caveat of safety. There is definitely a time for defense and protection—physical safety, financial preservation, ethics concerns, etc. This strategy has helped me in my life in a powerful way so I am presenting it as my ICA Power Tool.
In a state of defensiveness, the flow of emotions and progress are prejudiced and possibly, halted. When we utilize understanding we open our view to new possibilities, let go of assumptions, and explore new ways of being, become willing to try new behaviors, let down guarded emotions, and resistance to cooperation and growth.
To explore the ramifications of defensiveness, as we become aware of how the results impact those involved, we can gain a desire to change. An education article, “Defensiveness is a barrier to equity work – Adventures in Teaching (profteacher.com)” states, ”Even if “we didn’t mean it [as it was interpreted]….the impact can still be real. Defensiveness shifts the focus from the issue at hand, [actually, changes the issue at hand,] dwells on ego, offense, rather than listening and feedback.” (1)
Constantly taking a defensive position can be damaging. It can cause an alert response in behavior, language, and attitude. Some outcomes are feelings of “humiliation, sadness, and wrath…the belief that someone is criticizing you. True destruction ensues when a cyclical pattern is developed. Some responses could be taking offense, sarcasm, quiet treatment, or being critical in return. Being able to empathize with and appreciate individuals around you will also help you avoid the trap of reciprocal defensiveness.” (2)
Understanding vs. Defensiveness Case Study
A case study of this Power Tool is of Pamela, a Human Resources Director, and Susan, an Accounting Officer, who were working on creating a new organizational structure in their employer’s company. Each of them brought years of expertise in their fields and within the company but collaborating on a project this size was a new endeavor for each of them. Pamela was aware of Susan’s business acumen but also had knowledge of her tumultuous year in her family and personal life. From the beginning, it seemed that Susan was critical of every option Pamela put forward and created a wall of slow response and non-cooperative interaction. Pamela examined her own growing frustration and reaction to the lack of progress on the project. She felt defensive and considered a face-to-face meeting with Susan to find the reasoning behind the stalemate. Then she reflected upon Susan’s home situation. Pamela felt a growing sense of empathy and understanding for the stress that Susan must be experiencing and considered that it was possible that the pressure was spilling over into her work persona and reactions. Their next meeting began haltingly as had become typical, then Pamela broke the ice by saying, “You have had an eventful year with all that’s going on at home and in your family. That must be difficult.” Susan’s body language and energy changed completely. She was not expecting that statement nor the warmth and empathy that accompanied it. They shared a conversation wherein Susan could unload her burdens and worry, as well as her fear that she was not perceived as carrying her weight at work. The defensive air between both of the executives was gone. Their newfound understanding opened the way for finding strong new connections in the company’s organizational systems and the project moved forward successfully.
We see that there is value in moving from defensiveness to understanding but how do we explore cognition to shift to that perspective? Exploring what traits lead to Understanding is one pathway. Perhaps the initial stepping-off point is being objective–willing to see the situation from another person’s perspective. Leaning on your empathetic perspective as you explore the possibilities and shared regions of your relationship. Being open-minded frees one from the self-view that holds us back and allows us more plasticity as we participate in decision-making, strategizing, and expanding our vision. Exploring our outlook and developing new growth can create new strengths and synergy. New neuropathways are created and positive behaviors are optimized as we develop this Understanding trait.
The more often we feel the shift in using this Power Tool the more reinforced these neuro pathways are strengthened and automatic reflexes develop. What is the benefit of building Understanding in relationships? Aside from the peaceful environment with less strife and more camaraderie, Understanding can strengthen and build relationships. “A quality relationship is the number one predictor of health and happiness long into old age.” (3) Perhaps it is because “Our days are happier when we give people a piece of our heart rather than a piece of our mind.” (4) This quality of life is also due to the cycle of satisfaction and comfort is developed as we find satisfaction from empathy and understanding while bringing comfort to others. (5)
As Coaches, we employ curiosity as we help to create fertile ground in a session to explore the Client’s agenda. We must let go of judgment, tap into our emotional intelligence, and open our perspectives, as we do that our coaching light helps the client to utilize our skills and tools. We share the ability to “leverage our curiosity and empathy, to courageously be the person [who] intervened in a situation where others were not able to speak the same language or to look at the world and understand their different perspectives.” (6)
In a coaching session, we can work with the Client to explore situations where this Power Tool, moving from Defensiveness to Understanding will help them achieve the changes and successes they desire. They can move from a reactionary conversation, and emotion-fueled responsive attacks to shared respect—sacred I/Thou communication, where the relationship and the individual are revered in perception, address, and treatment.
One method to use this Power Tool could be with a Wheel of Life. The Client could label the different areas of the wheel with the data they glean from the introspection of the relationship or from the antagonist’s environment. Allowing the Client to examine the areas of the wheel causes them to broaden their consideration of the other person’s experience and then understand the basis of their perspective, applying sensitivity towards others and being aware that not everyone has the same point of view.
The coach might ask:
- How does their perspective differ from your own?
- How are your perspectives similar?
- What new awareness do you have from this analysis?
- What reaction does that bring up for you?
- How might you apply this understanding?
- What would utilizing this information change for you?
- “Where they are coming from?
- What they are going through?
- What is their motivation for doing something?
- What do they need or want from you?” (7)
What Results From Shifting From Understanding vs. Defensiveness?
What is achieved when shifting from Defensiveness to Understanding? We realize great health benefits. There is more cooperation in life, which begets success, greater quality of life, and less stress, promoting the general welfare of those around you. A less stressful community promotes a safer community and the advancement of education, the Arts, the broadening of ideas and invention, the application of talents, and excellence. The longevity of the individual, as well as the relationship. This also enhances its members.
(4) Arindol Dey, Our Days Are Happier When We Give People a Bit of Our Heart: Ownquotes.com)
(5) 5 Tips To Be More Understanding
(6) Harvard Business Review.
(7) The Importance of Understanding