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How would you recommend communicating with a naturally defensive coworker?

I have a coworker on my team who I sometimes need to communicate with in a professional manner. They are proven communicators as demonstrated by their contributions in team discussions and individual presentations. However, whenever I need to approach them in a 1:1 situation they tend to clam up, and adopt a defensive posture. Sometimes I am asking them for clarity about their work, or asking for their insight on a project I am working on. They aren't rude in these interactions, but they are clearly trying to offer up as little information as possible.

I have considered whether I might be too aggressive or frequent in my approaches of this person, but I don't believe this holds. I approach this person for work-related questions infrequently, and am careful to always remain cordial to help them feel at ease.

I think it's worth nothing that we are on good terms in a personal context. My (tenuous) suspicion is that this person is afraid these questions are a reflection on the quality of their work, and might be used as an attack on their professional reputation.

Any suggestions on how I can better communicate with this overly defensive colleague?

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How does this co-worker behave himself/herself with other co-workers and superiors? Does he/she use the same defensive tactics when comminicating in writing (such as Emails), if others are in copy?

You should start by answering the above questions first and if he/she is not very defensive and reserved with others, take note of how others approach him, and try to approach him/her the same way that others do. Could be that he/she has trust issues (maybe previois betrayals or bullying), thus being very defensive and reserved (would not blame the person if that's the case).

Using aggressive methods or trying to force him/her to answer your queries would only make the situation and relationship between you and him/her worse..

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Assuming your perception is correct - that he is defensive, start with phrases that put him in the position of being a "helper" - that way he won't feel like you are trying to set him up with quesitions.

EXAMPLES:

GOOD:

I need your help understanding this bit of code that I found.

Can you help me with this presentation slide?

Can I get your opinion on how best to do this?

What do you think is the best way to do "X"?

BAD:

Help me understand why you wrote this code this way.

Tell me why you would create a slide that says "X" instead of "Y"

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