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Use Tact and Care to Avoid Putting Others on the Defensive


When there is disagreement, it’s quite common for at least one of the parties to feel defensive in the situation. Since the goal is to move forward and not to prove “I am right,” consider what you can do to communicate clearly your thoughts on the matter, while avoiding putting someone else in a place where they react from a position of defensiveness.

One technique you might employ is to make “I” statements, rather than “You” statements. For instance, if someone were to say to you “You’re wrong about that contract,” you’d likely be taken aback and would likely feel defensive. On the other hand, if that same person were to state to you “I disagree with your interpretation of that contract,” you’d be more likely to respond “Oh? Where specifically am I off track? What’s your view?”

It’s also wise to refrain from making dogmatic pronouncements. You’ll invite discussion, rather than rankle and escalate the situation, if you learn to avoid statements such as “That’s ridiculous.” or “Everybody knows that the solution to this kind of problem is . . . .” or “Are you crazy?”

Change this type of statement to be more welcoming of discussion with “Well, that’s not the way I see it. Why do you think that’s the case?” or “I would have thought the solution would be to . . . . . Why do you think your solution works, though?” or “Have you considered that this type of action might lead the client to take her business elsewhere?”

Finally, avoid “But” statements. It’s been said that the word “But” negates the first part of the statement. The listener ignores the first part and focuses on what follows the “but.” Here are some examples of how “But” statements can be improved:

But statement:   I respect your work, but I don’t agree with this new idea.

Improved:          While I respect your work, I have reservations about this new idea.

But statement:   I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t agree.

Improved:           I hear what you’re saying, and have a different perspective.

But statement:   You’re dependable, but you’re impulsive.

Improved: You’re very dependable, and that serves you well. You’d do even better if you would recognize that your impulsiveness sometimes leads you to go off track, which slows the progress of your projects.

Effective communicators and leaders recognize opportunities to keep the conversation moving forward, rather than putting the other party in a position of defensiveness.

The way we communicate with others and with ourselves
ultimately determines the quality of our lives.

—Tony Robbins