Dear Dave: I have a self-management problem. I have developed a very defensive nature and I know I am overly sensitive to what people are saying. I don't want to be the type of person who feels the need to retaliate whenever criticism is given to me. I really want to be more analytical and calm. Please give me some advice. — S

Dear S: First let me say, that recognizing you have a problem is admirable and is the first step toward recovery. We all know people who would be defensive if you told them to have a nice day. I can hear it now, "What do you mean by that -- don't you think I have nice days?"

Certainly not a day goes by that I don't have to deal with the defensiveness of others. I am sure this is the same for most people. When we get defensive we make it harder for others to understand what we're saying, and we usually make the other person defensive, too. Typically, conversations cease when one or both of the conversationalists become defensive.

In addition, defensive attitudes and behaviors stifle learning. In order to learn something new and to change, you need to let go of the old ways of thinking. This never will happen if we spend all of our time protecting positions that should be constantly and truthfully re-evaluated. Smart, innovative people are adaptable and respond to new knowledge and patterns.

I believe we must be sensitive to our emotions and realize how our emotions affect our thinking. This requires some honest self-appraisal and soul-searching. We all know certain people or even events that will trigger defensive thinking, so we need to assess who these people are and what these events may mean to possibly jeopardizing cool, calm and rational thinking.

Sadly, there are some people who like to enrage other people by jerking their "defensiveness chain." They find pleasure in seeing people get all upset when having to defend a belief or opinion. They know the levers that will make people defensive -- they are masters at this. Avoid these people at all costs.

I believe that, after someone has said something that causes you to want to become defensive, these five steps can lead you toward nondefensive thinking:

• Take a deep breath — Think of the first thing you want to say or do and don't do that. Your first instinct may be to defend yourself against what you perceive as an attack, slight or offense.

Take another breath — The second thing you want to say or do may be to retaliate, but that will only escalate matters. Don't do that, either.

• Reflect and ponder — Think about the worth of the argument. Is it really that important? Is this one worth fighting? I believe an analysis of the value of the subject at hand will slow us down and allow us to respond appropriately.

• Ask questions – Ask the other person why he or she is thinking the way they do? Ask for more information about the situation or point of view. Be genuinely curious and try ever so hard to appear open and in control of your emotions.

• Focus on a solution or compromise — Defensiveness rarely produces action-oriented solutions. Try to think in terms of producing results and stay constructive. Propose ways and means to apply productive measures. Try to get everyone thinking creatively.

Finally, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! The more you do to stay in control of your emotions and look at things analytically, the better you will feel and the better you will communicate with others.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at Conrad is a professor at Augsburg College and directs the school's MBA program in Rochester.

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