Reducing defensiveness: 5 strategies for influencing behavior

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By Dino Signore

I’ve been reading the “The Laws of Human Nature,” in which author Robert Greene draws from history, science, psychology, literature and philosophy to provide “a codebook for deciphering people’s behavior.” In particular, I found his chapter on defensiveness interesting because of insights it can offer facilitators.

Greene begins by pointing to three areas where people become defensive if challenged:

  • Our sense of autonomy. Humans like to believe they have free will and are not influenced by anyone or anything.
  • A belief in our inherent intelligence. Even if they’re not a Rhodes scholar, people believe they are cleverer than others in some ways.
  • Our sense of morality. Everyone believes they are moral and doing good things.

When I’m facilitating a group, my goal is to encourage conversation, create a learning environment and increase the effectiveness of the group. If I violate beliefs about their autonomy, intelligence or morality, it could cause them to raise their deflector shields (think Star Trek), which inhibits learning because there is no information coming in — or going out.   ­­­

So how do we manage around this? Greene offers five ways to reduce resistance and become a “master influencer”:

Transform yourself into a deep listener — Too often we’re not really listening to what the other person is saying. Instead, we’re simply waiting for a pause in the conversation so we can throw out our own thoughts. Yet rather than rehearsing a response, try to take a stance of intense curiosity and be fascinated about what someone is saying or about to say. A cautionary note: This has to be genuine; otherwise, it will feel manipulative.

Deep listening is about listening to understand. You’re striving to understand the reality of the situation the other person is talking about — putting yourself in their shoes. Being curious about what they’re going to say next prevents you from jumping to conclusions or getting caught up in your own mental dialogue.

Infect people with the proper mood — Humans are impacted not just by the words of others, but also their moods and emotions. As you try to build rapport, be conscious of your tone of voice and body language. You want to project an aura of positivity and relaxation rather than any type of negativity or judgment.

Confirm their self-opinion — In addition to believing we are independent, intelligent and moral, we all have very customized self-opinions, which can vary greatly from person to person. The point is, if you challenge someone’s self-opinion, either consciously or unconsciously, your chances of influencing them are pretty much zilch. On the other hand, if you can affirm someone’s self-opinion, they will relax, making their minds more open to suggestion. Greene points to Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s persuasive character who leverages the belief in self-autonomy and pretends the job of whitewashing his aunt’s fence is not a punishment but a pleasure. In doing so, Tom gets his friends to take over the job — and even receives an apple in payment.

Use people’s resistance and stubbornness — Play a game of mental judo, Greene says. Understanding another person’s resistance and working within it will be more effective than working against it. For example, he suggests leveraging their belief in autonomy to produce a positive result.

My take on this: When I notice resistance from a group member, I assume something has been said that is either embarrassing or threatening. Instead of confronting the issue head-on, which might incite more defensiveness, I try to move around it. My first step is to recognize their resistance by giving it a nonjudgmental label and saying something like: “This is a difficult situation for you.” I then empathize (“I’ve faced a similar challenge when…”) and try to find a way to look at their resistance from another perspective: “Is there some other information you might find useful?” or “What else can the group/team do for you?” 

Allay insecurities — People are plagued by insecurities, which range from their physical and intellectual attributes to job performance and social status. Bottom line, we often feel that we’re being judged. To influence others, it’s first important to be aware of their particular insecurities, so you don’t trigger them. (This is where being a deep listener comes in handy.) Greene also suggests strategic flattery, which is not praising some physical or gender attributes but rather recognizing the quality of their thinking. For example: “That’s a brilliant idea,” “Sounds like you’ve really thought this through,” or “I really like the way you’ve approached this.” Here again, sincerity is critical. The way to establish rapport and lower defensiveness with someone is to reaffirm some aspect of their behavior, intelligence, efforts or skills they’ve developed.

It’s also important to mitigate your own insecurities. I work with entrepreneurs, many who are incredibly successful and wealthy, which can be intimidating. Yet if I’m feeling insecure, it means my thoughts are internally focused; I’m not concentrating on the person I’m interacting with.

The only way people really change is through self-diagnosis. Recognizing we’re not really as independent as we think, or as smart or moral, is key to self-awareness. By being honest about our own motives, we can become less judgmental, genuinely more humble and more open to learning. A facilitator’s job is to help group members along that path, to think about their thinking — and this can only be done when they’re able to lower their defense shields.

(Published on Nov. 29, 2021)

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.