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5 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Defensive Leader

Defensivenessexcessively 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. 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.

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 1/5 of a second, without our conscious awareness.
  • Then we become conscious of an unpleasant sensation (the feeling) within ½ 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 #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 #5.

5. Create more space between stimulus and response by leaning into the resources the Lord provides.

Number 2 above, lower your 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, gives 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, NIV)

What has helped you avoid defensiveness?

Charles Stone
Charles Stonehttp://charlesstone.com/
Both Charles and his wife Sherryl  have a heart for pastors and pastors’ wives. They have taught hundreds of pastors and their wives in the United States, Canada, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Mexico. Charles earned an engineering degree from Georgia Tech, a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate of Ministry from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He just began another master’s degree in Neuroleadership. He’s also an avid Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket fan. He has been professionally trained in these areas by these organizations: Life Coaching through the Professional Christian Coaching Institute Strategic Planning through Ministry Advantage (certified) Vision Clarity through the Church Unique Process (certified) Conflict Management through Peacemakers Charles is the author of three books – Daughters Gone Wild – Dads Gone Crazy (Thomas Nelson, 2007), 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them (Bethany House, 2010), and People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership (Inter-Varsity Press, January 2014). He loves to fish, ride his recumbent bike, and go to the movies with Sherryl, his wife of 33 years (he always gets the jumbo bag of popcorn with a free refill). They have three grown children: Heather, age 30, who is married to Charlie; Joshua, age 29, who is married to Deborah; and Tiffany, age 26, who lives at home. One canine also makes his home with them in Spring Grove, Illinois.

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