Every leader faces times when criticism makes us defensive. Understanding your brain will help you respond better.
Defensive: excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings (Dictionary.com).
Every leader at times has probably reacted defensively to another person. I have. And I regret every single time I did. Leaders naturally face situations that can easily provoke a defensive reaction. But seldom does defensiveness move our churches and organizations forward. So how can we avoid defensiveness? I suggest five proactive ways.
1. Realize the negative effects defensiveness breeds.
When we react defensively to a co-worker, an employee, a board member or a church member, seldom does good come from it. We can shut down the other person or we may incite defensiveness in them, which can further escalate a conflict. We can lose the benefit of another’s insight. We can damage a relationship. If we often act defensively, we can create a reputation that can drive others away from us and from important information we need to hear. We can even lose our jobs.
2. Keep your stress level low.
If stress stays at a high level for any length of time, our brain’s fight-flight mechanism gets stuck on hypersensitivity and makes us more prone to defensiveness. Prolonged stress even atrophies some parts of our brain, especially the area involved in memory. But if we manage our stress, the thinking part of our brain stays more engaged and our emotional part less sensitive. Sufficient sleep, time off, good friends, exercise, and fun hobbies can keep our stress low. In this post I suggest specific steps to lessen stress.
3. Understand where emotions come from in your body and brain.
We get defensive when we feel threatened by someone and a domino effect begins in our bodies and brains. Simply knowing how this happens can help us pause before we react. Here’s how the process works:
• Defensiveness starts with a stimulus: someone says something that makes us feel threatened.
• Next, an emotion begins at an unconscious level. Chemicals course through our nervous system and hormones flow into our blood stream prompted by a brain structure called the amygdala. This happens within one-fifth of a second, without our conscious awareness.
• Then we become conscious of an unpleasant sensation (the feeling) within half of a second. We feel angry, anxious, or fearful without even choosing the emotion.
• Next, the thinking part of our brain comes online: we pay attention, we assess the situation, we interpret it and we decide what to do.
• THE SPACE (See number 4 below.)
• Finally we respond with some action in response to the feeling and our assessment of the situation. In our case, we get defensive.
4. Recognize THE SPACE between stimulus and response.
THE SPACE is the moment in time between a stimulus (what someone said which resulted in an unpleasant feeling … anger, fear, etc.) and our response (defensiveness). That brief slice of time precedes every choice we make. THE SPACE always gives us time to choose how we will respond. We are not captives to our feelings. We always choose what we do in response to circumstances and our feelings.
So, when I get defensive, I can’t blame my wife, my kids, lack of sleep, the board, or Obama. It is my choice. However, we can lengthen that space with my suggestion in number 5.
5. Create more space between stimulus and response by leaning into the resources the Lord provides.
• Lowering our stress level is crucial to helping us create more space between stimulus and response. However, our ultimate source of strength lies in a growing and abiding faith in Christ. When the Egyptians were hot on the trail of Moses and the Israelites, the people started to freak out. But Moses wisely said in Exodus 14:14, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” God’s supernatural resources, when we draw upon them, give us the ability to refuse to react and resist defensiveness.
So, the next time you feel tempted to get defensive, consider these thoughts and look to the example of Jesus when he hung on the cross:
“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” —1 Pet. 2:23
What has helped you avoid defensiveness?
Charles Stone is the senior pastor of West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada, the founder of StoneWell Ministries and the author of several books. This post was originally published on CharlesStone.com.