We all get defensive. It’s part of human nature, but unfortunately, when left unchecked, defensiveness can sabotage a collaborative culture. Jeff, a leader in one of the companies we work with, shared a story with us about learning to recognize and deal with his defensiveness. It’s a great example of how this powerful leadership move can turn a win-lose conflict into a win-win opportunity to discover a new path forward.

Four of Jeff’s direct reports were unhappy with his leadership, and they brought their concerns to the owner of the company. The owner called a meeting with all of them to address the concerns and to determine if there was an issue with Jeff’s leadership. 

As is often the case, at the outset of the conversation, Jeff was very defensive. He felt attacked and threatened, and every time one of his direct reports shared a concern, he gave a rebuttal. Fortunately, one of our coaches was there to support Jeff and pointed out his defensiveness. For the first 15 minutes, Jeff still couldn’t see it. No matter how many times the coach pointed out his defensiveness, he felt like he had to give a rebuttal to his direct reports’ concerns. His job was on the line! He had to defend himself! He had to correct their stories and explain his side. 

Fortunately, it finally sank in. He recognized that he was being defensive and that he was preventing them all from moving forward. He stopped rebutting everything his direct reports were saying and started Listening Generously. He did his best to get curious about what they were trying to tell him. 

When he did that, the tone of the conversation changed. He was able to start seeing value in what his direct reports were saying. He recognized that the impact he was having on them was different from his intent. They started feeling heard, and there was finally an opportunity to move forward in the conversation. One of his direct reports even said, “I really acknowledge the way you’re just listening to us all.” 

The owner was able to see that the responsibility for these issues didn’t fall solely on Jeff, and together, they were able to see how everyone involved could take responsibility for the situation. 

Jeff still talks about that day as a crucible moment in his growth as a leader. He learned that by recognizing his defensiveness and choosing to Listening Generously he could turn a power struggle into an opportunity for learning and growth. He walked out of that meeting with new insights about his leadership and new freedom and power in dealing with difficult conversations. It was another step forward for Jeff in a life-long journey of leading The Collaborative Way.