What is Defensive Communication Style: Will it Hurt You?

What is Defensive Communication Style: Will it Hurt You?
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What Is Defensive Communication?

Stamp, Vangelisti, and Daly (1992) define defensive communication as involving a self-perceived flaw that an individual refuses to admit to another person, a sensitivity to that flaw, and an attack by another person that focuses on the flaw.

Defensive behavior occurs when the individual faces or perceives a threat from the group, and defensive communication style is the manifestation of such a self-inflicted perception.

Image Credit: flickr.com/jean_louis_zimmermann

Characteristics of Defensive Communication Styles

The six major characteristics for defensive communicators are:

  1. Evaluative speech - Evaluative speech is a manifested sign of a defensive communication style. Insecure people tend to categorize others as either good or bad, and make evaluative judgments on values and motives.
  2. Control - A defensive communicator attempts to impose one’s control over the other by insistence of details, emphasis on adherence to norms, and emphasizing on the semantics. The defensive communicator also tries to coerce, manipulate, and withhold data using position, in a bid to counter the perceived threats.
  3. Strategy - A defensive style shows recourse in various strategies such as withholding information, taking recourse to a special set of data or information, providing abstract information, trying to change or avoid the topic, and deliberate assumptions of guileless to counter the perceived threat from the other person. The defensive communicator tries to direct others and is not open to different ideas.
  4. Neutrality - People with defensive communication styles perceive neutrality or lack of positive strokes in the other persons’ communication as a sign of hostility. Their messages similarly betrays indifference, disdain, and lack of interest.
  5. Superiority - People using defensive communication usually have a superiority complex, and attach little importance to differences in appearance, status, and power. They are unwilling to establish mutual trust, and have little value to offer.
  6. Certainty - Defensive communicators aim to win arguments rather than solve problems, and mask their inferiority by assuming to be right. They emit absolute messages, with no scope for further discussions. They live in a state of denial in any conflict.

Drawbacks of Defensive Communication Styles

Among the various communication styles, defensive communication styles cause the most harm to the individual and the organization.

The defensive individual spends much time and energy in defense, and this energy comes at the cost of performing work related tasks. A person with defensive style is also not able to grasp the motives, values, and emotions of the sender, always thinking in terms of how the received communication might be a threat.

The focus on how to create a favorable impression on others, how to win, dominate, impress, escape punishment, and the like:

  • Takes the focus of an intended communication
  • Sends multiple values, affects motives, and distort cues

Research establishes that high levels of self-reported defensive communication can cause burnouts.

In the organizational context, defensive communication leads to problems such as:

  • Restricted flow of information
  • A restrictive work atmosphere as opposed to an openness
  • Communication in groups and personal conversations, hampering team unity
  • Suppression of new ideas
  • Impairment of group learning
  • Misunderstandings

All of these can lead to organizational dysfunction.

Impact of Defensive Communication Styles in the Home Office

People who are defensive communicators can cause organizational dysfunction and generally perform poorly in teams. The isolation and individual nature of work in the home office thereby, helps negate the harmful impact on the organization to a considerable extent.

The harmful impact of a defensive style when communicating is on the individual, however, and does not lessen in the home office, and in fact, the home office may actually increase the harmful effects of a defensive style on the individual. The reasons for this include

  1. Lack of physical cues and face-to-face interaction that could help clear misgivings
  2. Reduced availability of information in the home office as compared to a traditional office setting
  3. Lack of formal feedback for the home worker

The supervisors play a crucial role through personal interactions to help individuals overcome defensive communication styles, and the home office offers no scope for such initiatives.