Turn Defensiveness Into Curiosity

How do we turn defensiveness into curiosity? And do it consistently.

I know, that seems like a 180, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what it is. It’s taking those moments when we all immediately want to push back. But instead, we train ourselves to turn that completely around, and instead of pushing the door closed on a relationship, we’re opening it up. We’re making a surprise move. Turning defensiveness into curiosity is unexpected. It’s what will set us apart. It is a behavior that shows that we are immediately realizing that the relationship is not about us and our needs.

When we feel defensive, this becomes a cue for our curiosity to kick in. Let me explain what I mean. One of the most common situations is when I am working a deal for a client. I’m talking to a company or team that I believe would be a great fit for my athlete. But then, the guy on the other side says, “I don’t see value in your client, Mol.”

OK, so can you feel the hair go up on the back of your neck? Me too! Anger… resentment… the desire to fight back. It’s all very normal. But I’ve redirected that defensiveness. Though part of me may want to say, ‘‘You have to be kidding me! This guy’s a winner! He’s done everything needed and more to help his team win!”

Instead, I say, “OK, so it sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s not just this guy’s performance on the field that you value. Is that right? What do you value?” So you see in that story, instead of going at this guy, I’ve got my toolbox out and I’m ready to build a platform to keep standing right next to him. I’m taking the challenge and I’m doubling down. I’m buying into his reality and asking me to take me further into his world, into what he thinks is important. Defensiveness can be a doorway into what you really need to know about this important person. Shifting into curiosity is paramount to gaining clarity why someone feels the way that they feel about a particular situation. Paramount. Doesn’t matter if the person is inside or outside your organization.

This is important with your spouse or significant other — anyone you care about knowing better. I see two types of defensive behavior that we need to understand. The first is direct, and the second is indirect. Direct defensive behavior is when we blame someone or something else. Defensiveness comes from a situation that involves bad news or disappointment. Attacking or threatening the messenger — we’ve all done that. We’ve all interrupted, often to justify our beliefs or actions, or to attack back.

We’ve taken over the dialogue with long-winded explanations of why we are right. You probably have the picture by now, but a couple other cues for direct defensive behavior are a tone of righteous indignation and hostility, and demands for evidence. Any of these might as well be a ton of bricks, and each one is making a wall between you and the person that you need to get close to and understand. Indirect defensive behavior is more sneaky, but it’s just as problematic. For those of us who internalize our feelings, we demonstrate defensiveness by withdrawing. We’ve heard or read something that makes us churn, and we’ve got a death grip on the office chair. We turn silent. Our answers are cryptic or confusing. We’re punishing the other person with what many call passive aggression. The standby is pretending to agree without really agreeing, and the moment the person walks out the door, we’re telling our coworker what we really wanted to say. That does no good, because the person who holds the key to the deal is already off the elevator and gone baby gone.

As I describe this, maybe this thought is present: “Molly what other choice do I have? This guy shafted me!” So what I want to show you is another way, to reroute that reaction, from negative to something that’s positive. No, it’s more than positive. Curiosity is one of your most potent tools. Let’s talk about why and how you can turn defensiveness into curiosity. Let’s dig deeper into what one of our most brilliant minds, Albert Einstein, valued this highly. Einstein said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” 
 In my years of negotiations, I know how hard it is to land a deal. In the world of sports, I’m dealing with clients whose skills will be at a peak for a relatively short period. I’ve got to sell that — and hope the guy doesn’t get injured — in a very short window of time. It’s a crapshoot. I’m the last person who wants any roadblocks in my way, because the road is tough enough to get this thing done.

Defensiveness is like a series of roadblocks, and as we are pushing towards a resolution, we can’t get there, we can’t drive down that road. We can’t have a productive conversion with another party if we are defensive. Defensiveness is the outward sign of inward insecurity. Defensiveness is like the Queen of Spades in the card game hearts. Practically the only way to win is to get ride of her. She is the devil. Defensiveness is like that card. Likewise, as long as you react to something going wrong in a defensive manner, you are not going to win. People don’t want to get close to insecurity. They don’t want to do business with someone who takes everything personally. They see clearly that you don’t have room to put them first, because guess what’s there instead? Your baggage. Your defensiveness.

You are looking through a heavy lens and what you see is the world against you. Defensiveness brushes people to the side and makes them feel, at the worst, almost worthless. Defensiveness shows us as doors that are closed. Curiosity demonstrates us as doors that are open. Defensiveness gives an unfair advantage to your heart — your emotions — over your head, your reason and logic. In contrast, curiosity gives a giant boost to your goal of a closer relationship. If defensiveness puts the brakes on a relationship, curiosity revs up the engine. Curiosity accomplishes two separate and distinct goals. First, it shows that you are truly engaged and dedicated to communicating and finding out the most valuable information about your business partner’s ideals and desires. It is sending this critical message. Second, curiosity is that platform I mentioned before. It’s a strong position that enables us to gain insight and information.

Here’s another quote that I like, from Samuel Johnson, the great British man of letters. “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion — and the last.”

Start your engines with curiosity and you will be in the business of being the best!

The Molly Fletcher Company inspires leaders, teams and organizations to kick-start growth. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working as a sports agent. Her company’s Game Changer Negotiation Training workshops teach business people the framework for successful negotiating, so that you can close more deals while building stronger relationships. Sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter and subscribe to the Game Changers with Molly Fletcher podcast on iTunes.