Jessie was new to my team, and had a lot going for her – great work ethic, project management skills and focus. However, after a month of being her manager she got very defensive with me during a regular one on one – it caught me by surprise.

I had asked her why she’d made a particular decision. Jessie’s tone became angry, she raised her voice, and started to justify her actions. I was unprepared for this response but chose to stay calm, planning to raise it with her later.  I suggested we move on, indicating I was okay with her explanation, but she looped back to justify her actions twice more and in the end, I moved the meeting to a closure.

Being aware that our defensiveness often masks vulnerability, and wanting to understand what caused her reaction, I asked her to schedule a 30 minute meeting the following week with me. I explained that this meeting hadn’t been a positive one from my perspective and that, as her new manager, I wanted to unpack it with her so we could work really effectively together moving forward.

The time gap allowed Jessie and I time to reflect on ‘what went wrong’. I also suggested that we both consider two questions before we next met.

  1. “What did you do well in that conversation?”
  2. “What could you do differently next time?”.

The next meeting was amazing. Jessie, on reflection, realised she had panicked and made an assumption that I was questioning her decision because I was unhappy with it. She could see that this led her to react aggressively, which stemmed from her newness and anxiety about doing things well enough.

It cleared the way for us to discuss tools she could use if a similar emotion arose for her in the future. This included recognising her own emotional state, and asking questions to see if the person was unhappy with an outcome or was merely curious.  If they were unhappy, we discussed what she could do to explore that scenario without becoming aggressive. It included pausing (so important!), asking for time to consider a response if needed, and asking clarification questions to ensure she fully understood their view.

Does it mean Jessie will never fall into this pattern of behaviour again? Unlikely, but each time we can pause and choose to shift our behaviour for the better, we’re on the way to creating a new and more beneficial habit.

Can you think of a recent time when stopping, pausing and choosing your next response would have been helpful? Feel free to share, we’re all on this learning journey together.