Is defensive thinking keeping you from your best ideas?

There’s often a misconception that new ideas or solutions to problems are the guaranteed results of any well-intentioned meeting. But alignment on the outcome doesn’t automatically mean that the rest of the dance will unfold as intended.

I’ve worked with a lot of teams stuck spinning on a lot of problems. While there are certainly many obstacles to moving forward, the sneaky and sinister hurdle on my mind lately is defensive thinking.

Defensive thinking stops new ideas in their tracks, or from ever even getting off the ground. It also requires a lot of intention and finesse to mitigate. However, doing so is critical to peeling away a rigid mindset that could be blocking your team members, workshop participants and meeting attendees from their greatest ideas.

Why is defensive thinking costing you?

Defensiveness comes from a place of fear: fear of being wrong; not smart enough; not as good as a co-worker; not valued. The list could go on. And when people operate from this state, they hold onto beliefs as fundamental truths where any challenge to an idea is on par with a challenge to their very worth or identity. To protect this sense of self, a desire to be right emerges, or an inability to let a bad idea go.

This is problematic because it means people are more inclined to cling to something that’s not working rather than be wrong. And that inhibits the best ideas from ever surfacing.

How do you avoid it?

I love the statement, “I have strong beliefs, loosely held.” This frame of mind is critical to pulling people out of a defensive state — where they don’t feel safe — and into a reality where we still have opinions, we’re just a little more relaxed around them.

It can be challenging to achieve this. There’s a tension between wanting to feel safe/secure and a willingness to be vulnerable/unattached. Thus, as a facilitator, the task is to encourage people to bring their beliefs, experiences and expertise into the room, while also promoting the idea that these beliefs should not be held so tightly that they limit the potential for new ideas to be discovered.

So, how can facilitators lead in a way that aims to safeguard against defensive thinking and course correct when it inevitably crops up? Here are some tactics I like to employ during workshops to do just that:

  • Anonymous idea sharing: This helps reduce performance anxiety and neutralize political dynamics. It’s easier to loosen your grip on ideas when you know they aren’t being evaluated alongside your identity, whether you’re the new hire or CEO.
  • Rapid idea-generation methods: Quick-response exercises help keep people from overthinking ideas so that we can see what emerges without getting bogged down by over-evaluation or judgment.
  • De-title the meeting: Leaving out titles helps to reduce power dynamics and take emphasis away from specific personas and roles.
  • Validate contributors to make them feel heard: Sometimes this means addressing an idea that doesn’t quite fit the conversation by acknowledging it and putting it in a parking lot. Other times, it means facilitating exploration of an idea to help the contributor come to their own conclusions about its validity or purpose. Just make sure you facilitate in a way that feels inquisitive and curious.
  • Acknowledge people: This might seem obvious, but treating people like human beings is a huge step toward establishing openness and safety. Verbally check in with your participants throughout a session. Pull them aside for a quick 1:1 if you notice their energy seems off. This requires tapping into intuition and empathy, and goes beyond making them feel like their ideas are being heard. There’s a subtlety to it, so dial in, actively listen, and take the time to connect.

Disarming defensiveness starts with building your workshops in an intentional way. When done right, your participants will never even suspect you’ve been trying to soften them since minute one. Taking the time to create and nurture this kind of environment will result in a group that’s more open to possibilities and capable of uncovering their next great idea.

What methods do you leverage to help create safety and openness during workshops? Comment below, or reach out to me directly via email or LinkedIn to get a conversation going.



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Jackie Colburn

Jackie Colburn

Weekly resources for facilitators and leaders. Learn tips and methods to run better workshops, accelerate teams and uncover new ideas.