Defensiveness

Agile software development methods are relatively new. Many months ago, in response to hearing many people demand "proof" that Agile methods work, Scott Ambler explained why he thought that asking for proof was not likely to be fruitful, at least for now. Last week, Mr. Ed, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Agile methods, pointed out what he sees as many logical fallacies in Scott's article, and offered his analysis as evidence that "the quality of discussion surrounding Agile methods is often low."

Members on the Extreme Programming mailing list talked briefly about how or whether to respond to Mr. Ed's article. Some of the members, convinced for a variety of reasons that Mr. Ed is not merely skeptical, but hostile, questioned the wisdom of bothering to reply.

Noticing that all of this discussion is public, and perhaps read by many people, I suggested that there may be value in replying. Even if the person you're replying to is hostile and unlikely to be swayed, other people will read your reply. You can play to the audience. If you respond sincerely, respectfully, and non-defensively, you may attract some of the readers who are more open to your ideas.

A colleague wrote to me privately, saying that he understood why I'd recommend replying sincerely and respectfully. But why non-defensively?

I've learned that defensiveness serves me poorly.

I respond defensively only when I feel threatened. One way I respond defensively is to overstate my position. Now, as the words leave my mouth (or my fingertips), I know deep down that I'm overstating. And I know that if I were truly confident in my position I would feel no need to overstate it. So when I overstate, I reinforce my private doubts about my position while at the same time increasing my public commitment to it. Instead of reducing my sense of threat, I reinforce it.

It's unlikely that my defensive responses will fool people into thinking that I am confident. Though the content of my response may express great confidence, the form of my response sends a different message. People are very good at picking up these mixed messages, and at knowing which message conveys the greater truth. As Jerry Weinberg says, "When the words and the music don't match, trust the music." So my defensive responses tell people that I want them to believe that I am more confident than I am. This message may be murky, but people get it. Instead of increasing my credibility, I undermine it.

Defending against a skeptic's questions says that I feel not only threatened, but attacked. If the skeptic was intending to attack, my defensiveness validates the attack, in my audience's mind and in my own. If the skeptic was not intending to attack, my defensiveness suggests (to my audience and to myself) that I feel threatened by sincere (if skeptical) questions. Either way, my defensiveness sends the message that my position cannot withstand skepticism.

Sometimes, as in this example from April, I defend my position by attacking. When I attack, I legitimize attack as a way of interacting.

Defending sends the message that I imagine ill intent, that I am unable to empathize with the positive intentions behind the person's claims and questions. This makes it harder to find and create common ground.

When I focus on defending my position, I am less able to hear the other person's position cleanly and fully. This builds a barrier that ensures that my needs and intentions can not be heard cleanly and fully. I am less able to learn from the interaction.

Defending my position often provokes the other person to attack or retreat. This makes it less likely that the other person will be able to hear my position.

And finally, defensiveness feels like crap. Most of the time I don't notice when I'm feeling defensive. I recognize only later what I was feeling. Sometimes, as in the episode in April I recognize my defensiveness only when someone points out my strange behavior. When I'm able to notice my defensiveness in the moment, I'm usually able stop and find a way to respond sincerely, respectfully, and non-defensively.

Defensiveness doesn't defend us well, and often increases the very "threat" that we are defending against. As Sharon Ellison writes in her book Don't Be So Defensive! , "The irony is that in the name of self-protection we thwart not only the growth of our own self-esteem but also our actual competence. Instead of becoming connected through open interactions, we become isolated." (See pp 12–14)

Experiment: What makes a response defensive, rather than merely a response?

Experiment: What factors trigger you to respond defensively when someone challenges or questions your ideas or positions? Something about the challenges or questions? Something about the idea or position? Something about your relationship to the idea or position? Something about your relationship with the person issuing the challenges or questions? What other factors?

Experiment: What happens when you respond defensively to challenges and questions?

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