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I work at a fairly large software company, and was informed recently, that one of my superiors thought I was defensive. Now this is a man I admire, and have a lot of respect for, and with who, I've interacted only on a few occasions.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we are located at offices, in different cities, and have never met in person. The funny part is that co-workers and superiors at my own office, do not share this opinion.

However, this person exerts considerable influence over matters of career and growth, and I worry that this opinion if not corrected, might cause some damage later.

So, how do I defend myself against being called defensive? How does one draw the line between expressing a strong opinion, and appearing to have disregard for external opinions. +1 for answers, taking the different geographical locations factor, into consideration.

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    The fact that you feel you need to indicates that you are (I'm the same way). So don't! Apologize. It's the right way to handle it, anyway. – Nicole Jul 12 '12 at 16:09
  • @NickC thanks for the support :), but imagine this were a hypothetical question, and not about me. If a person were by and large not defensive in nature, how would he then handle the situation ? I've apologized by the way, but every time I do it, I am left with a nagging feeling that I've admitted to something, that I was not guilty of in the first place. – dll Jul 12 '12 at 17:12
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    I still stand by what I said. I hear you, I do the same thing. That nagging feeling itself is defensiveness. Let go, accountability is far superior to spotlessness. – Nicole Jul 12 '12 at 17:53
  • @dll you don't get what NickC is saying, your personal opinion is you don't think you are defensive by having that opinion you are illustrating that you are. it is very hard to be non-subjective about yourself. I agree, apologies are better than reasons which are just excuses as a defense. – Jarrod Roberson Jul 12 '12 at 18:01
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    @dll people don't tell you the truth all the time about things like this, especially in the work place environment because they can be legally liable for their comments if they are negative. You are being defensive in every reply to a comment or answer to your question. Your presentation or approach is probably offensive which is just a from of agressive defense. It is entirely how you word things. Get a good book or course on NLP these approaches have been very effective. – Jarrod Roberson Jul 13 '12 at 0:58
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A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), I read a sentence in a book (can't remember which one) that has stood me in good stead through the years.

"Perception is all there is."

Because this person perceives you as defensive, then anything you do to argue that you are not will only convince him further. Becasue this person can affect your career, you need to change his perception through your actions, not through argument.

First consider that he may be right. Senior managers are often very perceptive where people are concerned. Really look at your interactions with this person as if you were in his position and it was one of your subordinates taking the same actions or saying whatever it was you said to him. For instance, did you dispute one of his decisions after it was made? This is an extremely bad idea in virtually any work environment. The time to bring up objections to decision is before it is made, not after. Did you behave as if you knew better than he did and that you weren't going to do what he decided? That's even worse! Did you act as if he hadn't heard your objections the first 5 times you told them to him? Did you waste his time, presenting the same information mutiple times?

Next consider that he and you may be in different generations and thus perceive the same actions very differently. Different generations are often as much alien to each other as actual aliens from another planet would be.

But whether it is objectively true or not, he perceives that you are defensive and felt so strongly about it that he told you or told your manager to tell you. So you have to take the same actions whether you actually were defensive or not.

First apologize for whatever it was that got him upset. It doesn't matter if you still feel you are right, you need to apologize. Do not stick your foot in your mouth still further while apologizing. "I'm sorry if you were offended" is not an apology and will only make things worse. It is best to apologize in person, so if he will be at your office anytime soon, wait until then and make an appointment to see him. If he will not, then calling him and talking over the phone is the next best idea. You will probably want to make an appointment to talk though. Email is the third choice.

Next, ask him for help in appearing less defensive. Tell him you never intended to appear defensive and you need to learn better communication techniques so that it doesn't happen again and ask for recommendations as to how to do that. This will tell him that you heard his criticism and you are trying to fix the problem. A defensive person is not big enough to admit to error or to try to fix a problem. This alone will go a long way in correcting his perception of you.

Rehearse what you are going to say (or draft the email) and how you are going to say it and have a friend critique. The very worst thing you can do at this point is to sound defensive, so find someone who will be ruthless about criticizing you as you practice. Then after you are sure what you are going to say is fine, have someone who knows this person fairly well such as your boss, critique you.

Now for future behavior. You probably know what action it was that caused him to call you defensive, so do not repeat that action. In any interaction with him, ask yourself if this could be construed as defensive and think before you speak and then think a second time. Especially accept criticism well and do not try to defend your actions if he criticizes. Say something like, "I can see your point. What would you suggest?" And listen to the suggestions and do them.

  • Thank you. These are great points. I was just thinking about perceptions, and how one goes about changing them. Your tips should come in handy. – dll Jul 12 '12 at 17:55
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You still haven't figured out what you said, did, didn't say or didn't do that created this problem. It's as if this was conjured out of thin air. If that's the case, you can't argue with someone with a twisted sense of reality and bases opinions chaotically.

Ask around if there was anything you said at that time that made you come off this way. Generally, you may not be defensive, but seems like you may have made a poor first impression.

Whatever the original problem was, be the reason it gets solved.

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