Is there anything worse than a chronically defensive coworker? They argue, don't hear what you're saying, and sometimes even lash out – so most people end up avoiding them entirely. That’s not a good solution though, because it means problems go unaddressed and people around them feel like they can't get their voices heard.
But there's a secret to defusing defensiveness. It might not be your first instinct, and you might not be thrilled with what it takes, but it will work.
Start by understanding that people who get defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-positive feedback react that way because they perceive the feedback as much bigger than it is. For instance, if you say, "I don’t love the way the intro to the report reads," they hear, "This report is awful, and you're bad at your job." Or if you say, "I’d like to communicate better," they hear, "You never pay attention to anything I say. What's wrong with you?" In other words, they experience your feedback as an attack, even though it’s not meant that way.
So the key to working around this is to find a way to make the person feel safe. That means finding ways to signal that things are fine overall and that the problems aren’t earth-shattering ones. If you establish a basic sense of safety, the person won’t feel they have to defend themselves and can instead hear what you're saying.
Let’s say that want to talk to your defensive manager about ways you could work together better. If you just launch into your suggestions, she's likely to go on the defensive and even criticize you to ward you off. Not only won’t you get heard, but your attempt to talk will just further strain the relationship. So instead, start by telling her that you like working with her. Even share some of the reasons, if you can. Now that she's feeling safe in the relationship overall, tell her that you hoped you could talk about some small things that you think will help you do a better job.
Remember, too, that defensive people often expect others to react the way they do. So a defensive manager giving you feedback may be braced for warfare, but you can change the dynamic by using responses that emphasize your openness to the feedback. Saying something like, "I'm really glad you're telling me this. I didn't realize that this has been an issue, and I'm grateful to know" can dramatically change the nature of the interaction.
In other words, make it impossible for the person to experience your conversations as adversarial. If they feel safe, even the most defensive people can stay calm, listen, and even become collaborative problem solvers.
Now, you might argue that this is a lot to do to accommodate someone who’s not in the right. And it is! But if you want to have a good relationship with the person, get your voice heard, and get things done, this approach is the path there.