Posts Tagged ‘defensiveness’

Dreamdoor Series: Part 3 – Eldership

Eldership grows in part from having experienced the issues yourself, having known yourself as both victim
and oppressor…Elders themselves have made the leap from one-sidedness to compassion.

~Arnold Mindell, PhD.  Sitting in the Fire.  Page 51.



It was my first political meeting.  We were starting to organize a local chapter.  The regional coordinator was in the area and called an impromptu early morning meeting to give us a quick orientation.  One of us had stepped forward to be the chapter leader.  The rest of us were ready to assist.


The meeting hadn’t gone for more than a few minutes before things became toxic.  One of our team abruptly criticized the leader for a series of recent, unclear communications.  The leader became immediately defensive.  The toxic back-and-forth escalated to the point of the leader taking on the role of victim and declaring a desire to leave the group.


Welcome to the team.


I know toxic communication when I hear it; in part because I’m a systems coach and toxic communication is a common failing of teams.  But my real expertise comes from my own unconscious use of toxic communication and having it damage relationships – both personal and professional.  I am a recovering toxic communicator.  I know toxins, especially the ones served up in this meeting:

  • Harsh Start Up – Beginning a conversation with an abrupt, negative and accusatory tone.  (Yup, been there, done that…)
  • Criticism / Blame – A complaint that attacks a person’s character or personality.  (I can chalk up the end of my first marriage in part to my mastery of this toxin.)
  • Defensiveness – Turning criticism and blame away, often back on the original criticizer.  Rather than diffusing the situation, defensiveness escalates it.  (Score three-for-three.)


The regional coordinator stepped in and quieted everyone down.  The incident was about to be stepped over when I stepped in.


“Before we move on, I just need to say a few things.  First, I hear both of your concerns.  You,” indicating the criticizer, “really want us to have clear, concise communications.  I agree.  This is really important.”


“And you”, indicating the defender, “want us to see that you are doing your best.  Thank you for being the one who stepped forward to lead the group.”


“As we go forward, can we remember that we are all coming from a place of good intent?”


The effect was immediate.  Everyone took a deep breath.  The feeling in the room softened and the meeting proceeded in a productive manner.  The leader agreed that it would be good to get some help with communications in the future.  Would anyone step up?


It was not my intent to step forward that day.  In fact it was the last thing I planned to do.  But I had come to take a stand and bring awareness.  My first lesson in eldership had begun.  “…The leader follows a plan; the elder honors the direction of a mysterious and unknown river.1


I was in.



[1] Mindell, Sitting in the Fire, Page 184.


Judith MacBrine dba The Mirror Group © Copyright 2012

Dear Debt Super Committee: Be a High Performance Team, Please!

Dear Members of the Debt Super Committee:


Thank you for agreeing to be a member of the Debt Super Committee.  I am a small business owner very concerned about the impact of this committee on our economy, our politics and the confidence of our nation.  As a political leader, I will not ask you to set aside politics as a member of the Debt Super Committee.  You represent a voice of our system that wants and needs to be heard.


I do ask you to “do politics” differently between now and November 23rd when the debt-reduction plan is due.  Rather than polarize and tear each other and the country down, please develop yourselves into a high-performance team.


To create a high-performing team, three characteristics need to be present:  a high ratio of positive-to-negative interactions, a balance of inquiry and advocacy, and a balance of focus on self with focus on “the other.”


Ratios for the Three High-Performance Dimensions

Inquiry/Advocacy            Positivity/Negativity             Other/Self

High-performance teams                    1.143                              5.614                             .935

Medium-performance teams                 .667                              1.855                             .622

Low-performance teams                       .052                               .363                              .034


(See “The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams:  A Nonlinear Dynamics Model” by Marcial Losada, Meta Learning and Emily Heaphy, University of Michigan Business School.)


The ground work for high-performance teams is high ratios of positive-to-negative interactions.  Currently the US Congress is dominated by negative interactions.  Many can be identified as one of four toxic communication behaviors that kill relationships and team performance (see the work of John M. Gottman, PhD.):

  • Blame – A complaint about a specific action that attacks the person’s character or personality, e.g., “What’s wrong with you?”  “Can’t you understand that…?”
  • Defensiveness – Turning the blame and criticism away, often back at the original criticizer, the situation or someone else.  This escalates the conflict.
  • Stonewalling – Cutting off communication, the silent treatment, refusal to engage, withdrawal, being reluctant to express directly what you are thinking.
  • Contempt – Sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humor, belligerence.  Contempt is the most poisonous form of toxic communication because it conveys disgust and condescension.  It has been found to be harmful to physical health.

Low-performance teams are characterized as having a low ratio of positive-to-negative interactions and a predominance of focus on self and advocacy.  Because of the highly negative environment, these teams are unable to be creative and innovative.  We, the US taxpayer, cannot afford for you, the other members of the Debt Super Committee, and later the US Congress and President, to be a low-performance team.

We will know that you are “doing politics” differently when we see you display the characteristics of a high-performance team (which are fast-acting and contagious):

  • A cessation of toxic communication behaviors.
  • An increase in positive interactions.
  • Inquiry into the positions and concerns of “the other.”
  • Advocacy for the positions and concerns of “the other.”

You have a large and historic task in front of you.  Much of the rhetoric surrounding you is cynical and expects you to be partisan and to fail.  Right now, as indicated by US public opinion polls and by the volatility of the stock markets, you come to the task already judged as a low-performing team.


Prove us wrong!

Originally signed,
Judith B. MacBrine, Owner
The Mirror Group


Addressed and mailed to each member of the Debt Super Committee:

  • Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas (Republican and committee co-chair)
  • Sen. Patty Murray of Washington (Democrat and committee co-chair)
  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland (Democrat)
  • Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona (Republican)
  • Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (Democrat)
  • Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (Republican)
  • Sen. Max Baucus of Montana (Democrat)
  • Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio (Republican)
  • Rep. Xavier Becerra of California (Democrat)
  • Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan (Republican)
  • Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina (Democrat)
  • Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan (Republican)