The Four A’s For Managing Defensive Reactions

By Tony Gambill, Contributor

An essential skill for your career success is learning how to engage others in your harder conversations. These are the important and complex conversations that require strong relationships for you to succeed. Examples include:

  • Giving constructive feedback
  • Repairing a bad relationship with a client, colleague, or boss
  • Getting alignment with stakeholders who have strong differing opinions
  • Resolving a recurring issue with another team or individual

The primary reasons people feel anxious, or avoid having these harder conversations is because they are concerned about defensive reactions and the potential for damaging the relationship. Developing capacity to effectively respond to defensive reactions during the harder conversations is essential for your career success. 

In my new book, Getting It Right When It Matters Most: Self-Leadership For Work & Life (Gambill and Carbonara, 2021), we introduce the The Four A’s For Managing Defensive Reactions.

1)     Address Your Negative Emotions

Most people go into their harder conversations with the best of intentions and, many times, have rehearsed what and how they plan to convey their message. Then it begins, it seems like whatever you are saying is being perceived negatively, and the other person starts responding defensively. 

Their defensive reaction, in turn, can prompt a fight or flight response from you. Acting on impulse and raw emotions costs you time, relationships, money, and success. How do you stifle that natural urge to react immediately and instead respond thoughtfully? 


Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” To maintain our growth and freedom we must learn to Pause.

Understanding your physical responses to negative emotions helps you know when it is time to Pause. Pausing allows you to choose your behaviors based on goals and values rather than reacting to temporary negative feelings. What are your most common physical responses to negative emotions?

  • Clenched jaw 
  • Shallow and increased breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • A sinking feeling in your stomach
  • Flushed face 
  • Increase in sweat

The ability to pause and regain focus enables you to choose your best actions versus reacting out of fear, anger, loss of control, or frustration.

2)     Acknowledge Other's Negative Emotions

Once you have regained control over your own negative emotions, you need to acknowledge what you have observed anger, hurt, surprise, hurt, or frustration from your conversation partner. When emotions are strong, it inhibits our ability to listen, process information, and deal with the issue at hand.

Research shows that the quickest way to diffuse and diminish emotional intensity is to let the other person express those feelings. When you create a safe space to express negative emotions, you set the stage for the possibility of moving forward in a meaningful conversation. Below are some statements that invite others to share and feel heard. 

  • It sounds like you’re feeling (frustrated, upset, etc.). Is that correct?
  • Tell me if I’ve got this straight. You feel ________ because…
  • I didn’t fully understand how you were feeling about _____ until now, and I’m grateful that you’ve shared this with me.
  • That isn’t what I meant, but I can see how you could take it that way…

3)     Ask Follow-Up Questions

Follow-up questions allow others to think more deeply about their negative feelings and helps them to articulate the thinking behind those emotions. Asking follow-up questions allows people feel respected and heard. Once you have acknowledged and validated the other person’s feelings, ask follow-up questions to dig deeper. Below are some examples of basic “tell me more” questions.

  • Tell me more…
  • What else are you thinking?
  • How does that impact you?
  • Can you give me an example?

The art of asking great follow-up questions lies in your ability to allow for silence. Resisting the need to fill the gaps in the conversation gives the other person time to reveal more thoughtful and meaningful information.

4)     Agree On How To Move Forward

Two business people making an agreement. getty

Once you feel that the other person has been heard and they are feeling ready to move forward, it is time to find common ground for continuing the conversation. Finding common ground and making agreements is a great first step to regaining trust and momentum. The following statements and questions help define agreement:

  • What do you need to move forward with this conversation?
  • Can we find a compromise here by ___________?
  • I agree with part of what you are saying, and_______________.
  • I think there may be some common ground between us in this aspect.

In today’s fast moving and complex world where people are working from multiple locations, it inevitable that you will find yourself in situations where you need to have a harder conversation to make progress on your goals. The Four A’s For Managing Defensive Reactions provides a roadmap for how to listen and respond to other’s negative reactions so you can get back on track with relationships and progress.

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