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Defensive vs. Supportive Conversation: Some Critical Differences

Group learning, team productivity, family communication, and personal conversations all suffer in a defensive climate. On the other end of the scale, genuinely supportive conversations are the foundation of positive and constructive personal interaction.

By Loren Ekroth

We become defensive when we feel someone is judging us or trying to control us. Also when the other gives off an air of superiority over us or is absolutely certain - even dogmatic - about their views.

While attending a professional training a few weeks ago, I happened to sit at a table with four strangers during lunch.

One table-mate, a management consultant, brought our conversation to a halt with dogmatic pronouncements and evaluations of others' ideas. He came across as slick, certain, self-absorbed and pompous, and utterly uninterested in the ideas of anyone else.

Six dimensions

Several decades ago, Dr. Jack Gibb described six dimensions of behavior. One pole of each of these dimensions creates a defensive climate, while its opposite pole creates a supportive climate. These climates apply equally to informal conversation, formal group meetings, and classrooms.

A supportive climate encourages open, honest, and constructive interaction. A defensive climate leads to competitive and even destructive conflict.

These are the six poles for each type of conversation:


Descriptive Messages are clear specific statements without loaded words or judgmental cues.

Inquiry Orientation: Messages invite other(s) to work together to understand issues or solve problems. Cooperative.

Spontaneity:Speaker's talk is unplanned and free of hidden motives. Considers what others contribute.

Empathy: Messages convey interest and understanding, responsive to others' feelings and thoughts.

Equality: Messages signal worth in others and their contributions. Ask for others' viewpoints, ideas.

Provisional: Messages are points of view, and open to other views. Provisional attitude invites alternative views.


Evaluative: Messages carry judgments of right and wrong, good or bad, and nonverbal cues of evaluation.

Control: Attempts to impose one's on others, sometimes with coercion or manipulation. May use position to get others to agree.

Strategy: Messages suggest the speaker is trying to direct others, is not open to different ideas.

Neutrality: Messages demonstrate lack of interest, indifference. Good for poker, terrible for communication.

Superiority: Messages suggest speaker is superior, others inadequate with little of value to offer.

Certainty: Messages suggest absolute, black and white truth. No room for differing ideas or viewpoints.

Defensive climates impair group learning, team productivity, family communication, and personal conversations. They prevent new ideas from being spoken or heard and considered.

Sometimes these climates are created by Groupthink when nearly everyone buys into a common viewpoint or ideology, and sometimes they are generated by only one or two persons. When emotions are hot, people are easily susceptible to co-creating defensive climates.

Ways to build supportive climates

Monitoring oneself. Being mindful of one's own speaking habits and eliminating behaviors that make others defensive. Acting in a steady way, showing empathy, listening carefully to all ideas can set a standard that others may follow. We must change ourselves first.

Getting agreement on some helpful guidelines, such as taking turns and allotting time for speaking. It is best to get agreement on these basics in advance and also to elect a trusted person to see they are observed by all.

In large group meetings, skilled facilitators can help create and then enforce agreements on conduct. As well, facilitators can ask key questions, allow time for reflection, and point out when speakers are getting off track.

For hotly disputed issues,a mediator can calm emotions and make certain that everyone is heard in full. There are many volunteer mediation centers in the U.S. that perform these services at low cost.

Should I give feedback to others?

Yes. If someone is exhibiting behaviors that make you defensive - such as using loaded words, or acting superior, you might bring this to their attention. It sometimes is best to do this privately by describing their specific behavior and how it makes you feel.

However, doing so is not without risks. Often people are not open to such feedback, and an employee might be fired for challenging the boss's controlling or judgmental behavior. Authority figures do not like whistle-blowers, and emperors do not tolerate little boys telling them they are not wearing any clothes.

Loren Ekroth 2004

Loren Ekroth, a speaker and author in Las Vegas, is an acknowledged expert on conversation skills. Subscribe to his popular e-zine Conversation Pieces, at his website, ConversationMatters.com Tel: 702-214-6782.

Some Related Articles:

Words Have No Meaning Until You Give it to Them
Help for the Holidays: A Survival Guide For When the Relatives Arrive
Top Five Conversation Stoppers
Four Secrets of Learning Masterful Conversations
Cure Yourself From Interrupting Others
Six Common Mistakes That Spoil Conversations
How to Handle People Who Are Always Arguing


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