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Listen Now: What is Defensiveness Anyway

In this episode, we talk to Dr. Stephanie Lopez about the first time she experienced The Human Element. She shares stories and examples with us about her journey of self-awareness. She describes the process of discovering that it was her own insecurity that would sometimes trigger behaviors she wanted to change, like being unknowingly passive-aggressive or thinking critical thoughts about others. Her courage and vulnerability are admirable!


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*Show Intro*

Stephanie: Hi, I’m Stephanie Lopez and I’m an organizational psychologist and licensed Human Element practitioner.
Laura: Thank you for being here.
Stephanie: Thank you for having me.
Laura: I, um, I asked Stephanie to join us in the podcast today because I really wanted her to talk about her experience going through The Human Element the first time. Um, how many years ago was that? Now, remind me.
Stephanie: Let’s see. I think it was about four, four years ago. Yeah.
Laura: Oh. Four years ago. Okay.
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: So, you know, my, my experience– when I’m trying to describe to people what The Human Element is, it’s very difficult to translate and put it into words that really means anything to them. Um, it’s really something that you have to experience. But I also know that you have had some– the way that you’ve processed through some of the experiences, you have stories that you can share with us.
Stephanie: [02:04] Yes. Definitely. I’ve found that this workshop is like no other that I’ve seen or personally taken.
Laura: Mm hmm. Oh, I had the same exact experience. Um, and so what I wanted to do is just take some of the, some of the concepts –we can’t possibly talk about all of them– but take a couple of the concepts that really resonated with you and I want you just to tell us the story of the experience when you were going through it the first time and then, you know, maybe we’ll talk about how’s that working for you today.
Stephanie: Okay.
Laura: Okay?
Stephanie: Yeah, that sounds great.
Laura: So, um, and, and you wrote about this, actually, so I think I kind of want to start there. When you– it was like day one of the workshop and there was a moment where you had this sort of, I don’t know if it was an epiphany, but you had this realization that you talked to the facilitator about, right?
Stephanie: Yes. Yeah. So, as I mentioned in my blog, by noon on the very first day of this five day workshop, I was convinced that everyone in the world needs to take The Human Element. I think a couple things happened that led me to that. One was, uh, well, you know, I guess it was really around, around the way that I was coping with difficult situations in my life.
Laura: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: I felt like I wasn’t coping as well as I wanted to. And so, um, she talked about a few different things. And so–
Laura: Yeah.
Stephanie: –I’ll get into that a little bit more.
Laura: Okay.
Stephanie: Okay. Uh, so there were a couple things in particular that the facilitator talked about. One of the things that she mentioned to the class is she said every interaction, response, and reaction is all based on how I feel about myself. In that moment I think I, I, you know, I stopped dead in my tracks. I was like, “Wait a second. Everything is about how I feel about myself?”
Laura: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: Like I just got a rush right now–
[Laughter 03:59]
Stephanie: [04:00] –thinking about that.
Laura: Uh huh.
Stephanie: Like, wow. Okay. So I’ve got some investigating to do there. Uh, and one of the other things that she talked about is that there’s this cycle that we go through when we are coping. If you think about an inverted “U” –you know, picture that for a minute– as we are children growing up, um, with the best of intentions our parents often stop that cycle before it even reaches the top. And, um, basically just wanting to calm us down and, as we grow, we actually start stopping this cycle sooner. And, you know, maybe hearing that it doesn’t really sound like that big of a deal, but what happens, um, and what was happening for me is that I never worked through, uh, the conflicts and the negative things that were coming up in my life.
Laura: Mm hmm. Like you didn’t let yourself actually feel–
Stephanie: Right.
Laura: –the feelings that were there–
Stephanie: Right.
Laura: –and so it was like stunting it.
Stephanie: So I never got through it. Yes.
Laura: Yeah. So, you know, when you were saying that, I wanted to share just a really short anecdote. Um, so I was in New York in June to facilitate The Human Element with Ethan Schutz. Ethan is Will Schutz’s son and will is the creator of The Human Element. And I, I went up a little bit early and it was the Sunday before we started the five day workshop and we went to the farmer’s market near his home with, with the kids and I literally walked– as I walked in, there was a family there and I heard the mom say to her little girl, “Don’t cry. Stop crying. Stop crying.” And I thought, “Oh my gosh. That’s it. That’s, that’s what happens.”
Stephanie: Yes.
Laura: And it’s benevolent.
Stephanie: Yes.
Laura: You know, I mean, she might have been a little bit frustrated, the mom, but it wasn’t about judging that behavior, it’s, it’s we look at these emotions like, oh, they shouldn’t happen. And so from a very young age we do learn, “Oh, stifle that. Don’t feel that.” And we really miss out, like you’re saying, on actually figuring out what’s going on for me–
Stephanie: Right.
Laura: –and getting through it.
Stephanie: [06:00] So, I think some of what happened as a result of that is I often found that I, I had reactions is situations that later I looked back on and I was like, “Whoa. What was that about? Like, why was I so critical of, of her?” Or, you know, “Why did I get so angry and attack him?” And I didn’t have the awareness of why that was happening.
Laura: Yeah. So, can you think of anything specific? ‘Cause I wanted to circle back to that and you already kind of did it for me. Beautiful segue.
Stephanie: You’re welcome.
Laura: You know, when you said that, that every interaction, response, and reaction is all based on how I feel about myself and that was like this, “Whoa” like, “Wait, wait, wait. If that’s true, then oh, man. Like some of these reactions that I’m having–”
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: So, can you think of a specific situation that was going on for you that really kind of made that profound in that moment?
Stephanie: So, let’s see. I mean, in the actual workshop I had, uh, that– I totally bought into that and I believed it and, as I walk through the next few months and the next year and year after that, I looked for opportunities to see when that might be true. And so, one that comes to mind for me is, um, I was facilitating an off-site for a supervisor and, uh, basically, one of the things that we were doing was I was debriefing the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, HBDI, which really measures people’s preferences for working with other individuals. And I started asking the individuals in the room questions to get them to really talk about how, um, this was true for them and how this could be meaningful for their team to use and they weren’t saying anything back to me. They were just staring at me like deer–
[Laughter 07:54]
Stephanie: –with the headlights or whatever that phrase is.
Laura: That’s the worst feeling.
Stephanie: Yeah. I was like, “Oh my gosh.”
[Laughter 07:58]
Stephanie: [07:59] And so, of course, I’m in a professional environment so I don’t start attacking them out loud. But in my head, man–
[Laughter 08:05]
Stephanie: –I was like, “These people. Like they, they, clearly they don’t have–” I don’t know. I mean, I’m gonna say some mean stuff right now but don’t judge me.
Laura: This was your unfiltered thoughts.
Stephanie: These are my unfiltered thoughts so they’re not educated. “Clearly this supervisor, he’s not even backing me up right now, like–”
Laura: Yeah. No courage, right?
Stephanie: No, there’s no courage there.
Laura: Like, “What a chicken.”
Stephanie: Chicken. Yeah. So, I’m having all of these negative thoughts. I walk out of that off-site later on and I go to one of my coworkers and I tell her, “I’m done with doing these off-sites. I hate doing this.” Yada, yada, yada. And she is also a lover of The Human Element and so we start thinking together–
[Laughter 08:44]
Stephanie: –and it occurred to me, “wow. Okay. This is connected to one of my insecurities. In that moment, I didn’t feel competent enough to get them to answer the questions or to get them engaged.” So, you know, that– I was not aware of that in the moment but once I was, once, you know, after processing later on, I realized all of my negative reactions, those were my defense mechanisms to protect myself from feeling incompetent.
Laura: Yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: And so the story, there’s this subconscious story that you’re telling yourself in your mind that if you were better at your job then they wouldn’t be staring at you silently.
Stephanie: Exactly.
Laura: So, part of you was making their reactions or their behavior about you–
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: –and that was, that’s not a pleasant story.
Stephanie: No.
Laura: Like most of us, I certainly don’t like to tell myself the story, “Oh. I’m not competent–
Stephanie: No.
Laura: –I’m not up for this.” That doesn’t feel good.
Stephanie: No.
Laura: So, instead of that, instead of just like letting myself feel that, i find ways to not feel it.
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: Like blaming them.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: Right? Those uneducated–
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: –chicken people. Like no emotional intelli– this is their fault.
Stephanie: [10:01] Right.
Laura: Yeah. ‘Cause that’s easier.
Stephanie: That’s way easier.
Laura: And then I don’t have to feel those ugly, negative things about myself.
Stephanie: Yes.
Laura: Yeah. That was big for me. The, the whole idea that defensiveness isn’t even defending yourself against other people, it’s just defending myself against the things that I don’t want to feel about me.
Stephanie: Yeah. I feel like that’s huge.
Laura: Like, what?
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: I just made my head explode.
Stephanie: Right?
[Laughter 10:28]
Laura: Y’all can’t see me but that’s what that was.
Stephanie: Exactly.
Laura: Yeah. Yeah, so that was big. And I think the defensiveness in general was another really big, like, epiphany or moment for you, right, from the Human Element?
Stephanie: Yeah. So, when I, I think back now, I, I can’t even really remember how I defined defensiveness before because I feel like most people in the world, they’re like, “Oh, they’re just being defensive.” Everyone says that now, now and then. So, if I really thought back, I probably thought defensiveness was when someone was outwardly critical or attacking. That’s probably, probably was my label before. And now, after doing this work and being involved and now being a licensed Human Element practitioner, the definition of what being defensive means has completely broadened my perspective. Now, when I hear people say, “Oh, that’s just their personality” or I hear them say, “Well, they’re never going to change” or anything like that, I actually feel a lot of hope in those moments because I realize that what we often point out as personality, um, flaws is actually just an individual being defensive.
Laura: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: And the great thing about being, it being a defense is that we have the ability to change that.
Laura: Yeah.
Stephanie: And to respond differently. And I am a walking, living, breathing example–
[Laughter 11:52]
Stephanie: –because I have drastically reduced my level of defensiveness, um, and I feel so excited about that.
Laura: [12:03] Oh, yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: It feels really good. I, I would say the same is true for me. Um, one of the things that I have told people about The Human Element experience is– so, for me, personally, it had a huge, profound impact on me immediately.
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: And there’s this time release element to it–
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: –where some of the concepts maybe didn’t land in a really deep and profound way in the moment, but later it struck me. Or the idea of, like, defensiveness. I understand it now on a deeper level than before but that just kind of keeps getting deeper and deeper and I see more and more how those patterns show up. So, for me, I’ve, I’ve just never stopped growing, even from the first time that I took it, which was back in 2009.
Stephanie: I totally agree. Yeah.
Laura: And so that whole idea that it’s continuous journey and it’s just about progress, like that’s one of our core values is, you know, progress over perfection–
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: –it brought so much comfort to me and so, today, when I– ’cause I still have defensive behavior. I would love to say I don’t.
Stephanie: Oh yeah. Me too.
Laura: I’d love to be, like, totally over that. So, when I do have those defensive behaviors show up, I can take really, I take a lot of comfort in knowing, “Yeah. I can make a different choice.”
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: I can become aware of that, figure out what’s that narrative? What’s that story that I don’t really like to hear? and that I’m putting it on other people or whatever defense mechanism I choose to use and go, “No, no. I’m gonna make a different choice. I’m gonna feel the feelings.” Right? Which was–
Stephanie: Yes.
Laura: –back to what you were talking about, that inverted “U.” Let me feel that.
Stephanie: Yeah. Uh huh.
Laura: Let me process through that. I can reality check it.
Stephanie: Yep.
Laura: And now, because I’m more self-aware, I can make a different choice.
Stephanie: Yep. I can coach myself through it and, you know, as you said, it’s really a journey. And through this journey I’ve discovered defenses that I never thought I had. For example, last year someone made a comment to me, you know we were in the hallway, and he– we had just come out of a meeting– and he said, “Oh. That, that was really passive aggressive.” And I was like, “Me? I’m not passive aggressive.”
[Laughter 14:04]
Stephanie: [14:05] And then I’ve really started paying attention to myself and I’m like, “Holy moly. I’m more passive aggressive than I thought.” Which sucks–
[Laughter 14:14]
Stephanie: –but at least I’m aware of it.
Laura: Yeah. Yeah, I have that same, like, “Oh, shoot.”
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: Like, I wanted to be past this, right? I don’t want this to be true. But isn’t it– it’s so great, ’cause once you realize that and you accept it and you go, “Okay. Maybe sometimes I’m passive aggressive.” Now you can do something about it.
Stephanie: Exactly. Now I have a choice.
Laura: So powerful. Yeah.
Stephanie: That’s something else that The Human Element really, uh, gave me, I think, is the ability to see how many choices that I make every single day. Through that I feel a lot more empowered and free because now I’m realizing, “No. I don’t have to do something because I ought to do it. I’m, I’m going to choose my life and choose it exactly the way that I want to.”
Laura: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: Yeah. And when it starts to go not quite the way– I’ll just, I’ll speak for me–
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: My life is going not quite the way I want it to go, I’m like, “Oh, okay.” So some of these choices I’m making are, are subconscious. I’m not fully aware of what’s driving me in this direction, so that becomes another really great opportunity for me to become more self-aware. And that way I can make more of those choices conscious.
Stephanie: Exactly.
Laura: Yeah. So, let’s go back for a second to the, um, defensiveness concept. Can you, um, tell us what the signs of defensiveness are and your experience with that when you did Human Element the first time?
Stephanie: [15:43] Yes. So picture everyone, about 20, 25 people sitting in a circle, all facing each other in chairs. And we were handed out this, uh, worksheet: Signs of Defensiveness and asked to check a box next to each adjective, each word that we occasionally find ourselves behaving in. So, I’m reading through, reading through and most of them were true for me.
[Laughter 16:15]
Stephanie: So, I’m feeling like, “Whew! I got a lot of issues. A lot of issues.” Sitting there–
Laura: Aw.
Stephanie: –not feeling great and I kind of glance next to the person beside me ’cause I’m like, “Okay. Well, let’s see how many other people have this many issues.”
[Laughter 16:29]
Laura: Not something you can cheat on.
Stephanie: Yeah. So I was like, “Okay, uh huh.”
Laura: Which ones should I pick?
Stephanie: Um, and she barely had any of them checked.
Laura: Oh jeez.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: Did she check “denial”?
[Laughter 16:40]
Stephanie: I don’t know if she checked “denial”.
Laura: That would have been a good one to check on.
Stephanie: Yeah, so I, I really felt embarrassed. Uh, you know, my face gets hot when I feel embarrassed and I’m just sitting there like how can I have so many issues? Uh, and later, what I was told is, actually each box that you check, these are opportunities because these are times that you recognize that you might be defensive. So now, um, when I think about it and I look at all of those, if I observe myself, for instance, shutting down or being overly critical or bringing humor to the situation I can ask, “Okay. Is this– am I trying to protect myself from feeling anything, um, or is this an innocent behavior?” That’s really, um, you know, helped me deal with situations a lot better and even in– if, in that very moment, I don’t have it completely figured out, I can go back and I can recover well and talk to the individual that I maybe perhaps didn’t respond to in the way I would want to.
Laura: Yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: Absolutely.
Stephanie: So, it’s really, really actually improved a lot of my relationships at work, um, outside of work, at home–
Laura: Mm hmm.
Stephanie: –with friends.
Laura: Oh yeah. It applies everywhere.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: Yeah. I mean, the Human Element is, it’s about recognizing, you know, humanity in organizations. Organizations are just people, just groups of people–
Stephanie: [18:07] Yeah.
Laura: –so, let’s keep that in mind. So when we talk about improving organizational effectiveness and productivity, obviously one of the ways we think is most impactful to do that is to focus on what’s happening with the people.
Stephanie: Mm hmm.
Laura: And as soon as you do that, of course it’s going to bleed over into other areas of people’s lives. I’ve had more than one client actually tell me, like, “My wife thinks you’re the best thing to ever happen to me, because–”
[Laughter 18:31]
Stephanie: Aw, that’s so good.
Laura: Even if we never talk about anything in their home life, they just take some of the concepts and they, they carry it there as well.
Stephanie: Yes. Definitely. I certainly do that myself.
Laura: And I wanted to, um, I wanted to mention The Signs of Defensiveness worksheet that Steph was just talking about is actually available, um, on our website for free download. So check that out if you guys want to looks at it. I encourage you to be really honest with yourself. It’s gonna be–
[Laughter 18:59]
Laura: –most useful to you if you’re honest. And I– yes, I have had people say, “Um, it would be faster if I just checked the ones I don’t do. Can I do that instead?” And I encourage them to go ahead and check the ones that they do, in fact, engage in from time to time or, you know, ever.
Stephanie: Yeah.
Laura: And being honest with themselves in that way and you all listening, being honest with yourselves in that way, is really how you can truly begin to grow your own self-awareness, make more conscious choices and, like Stephanie is describing, really improve your relationships. Well, I want to thank you so much for, uh, sharing your experience with us. Um, I know, for me, the, the things that I’ve learned about myself going through this work, both in the workshop and in the time that has passed since, it’s a vulnerable experience. Uh, and so sharing that is, it requires a lot of courage so I really appreciate you having the courage to, to share with us today and I believe that it will be beneficial to anybody that chooses to listen.
Stephanie: [20:02] Thank you so much for having me, Laura.
Laura: My pleasure.

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