Listen and Unlearn: Losing Those Unhelpful Defense Mechanisms


NEXT for Women asked me to explore what types of things 40-something women are working on now that they would encourage young women to work on earlier in their career. Today I’m sharing one woman’s advice to avoid inviting defensiveness into your meetings.


 This CEO & founder took on her first C-level position at a start-up in the fast-growing but still early days of search marketing. Try to imagine a time when Google was still a privately held company rather than a way of life (hard for 20-somethings for whom “Google it,” is a natural instinct).


In those days, it was still very much of a boys club. While not intentional or malicious, it was business as usual. On paper you could be a partner, but many conversations were still held mano a mano.  New to management, and as the only female partner in an embryonic company, she developed some coping mechanisms that work against her more collaborative leadership style.


“Just last week, I made every leadership mistake possible at a team meeting. We were discussing something internal about growth and potential and I shut people down. That’s my natural defensive reaction when I don’t like something. It’s a habit I learned early on when I worked in an all male environment and tried to overcompensate. I’ve been working on it for the past five years. Typically, I’m open to opinions but I can slip into defensive mode if I’m not in a positive frame of mind. That day I wasn’t listening. I was just waiting to talk so I could shut down a particular idea.


I was so disappointed in myself. In the next five days I absorbed it. I internalized it and in that time I learned more than I’ve learned in five years. I had to hit that low of being broken before I could figure it out. Twenty years ago, fifteen years or ten years ago, when I was in those situations I would shut people down. The boys’ club will shut people down left and right and I didn’t learn from it.”


She also apologized to her team and shared her journey and what she had learned — that shutting people down shuts down collaboration. Often you don’t even realize you’re doing it. I could relate to this issue as I can fall into the not listening trap at times. Even if for a different reason, it still shuts down the conversation. A boss once told me that I was a great thinker but could be thought of as quiet. As a result I was always formulating what I was going to say and waiting for the opening to say it rather than listening. I missed out on communicating my ideas because I was already defending them.  Being aware of it sooner than later can help you avoid developing the habit at all.


Christina Vuleta is a strategic consultant and creator of 40:20 Vision. 40:20 Vision is a resource to start conversations, share experiences and facilitate mentoring between generations. It provides advice from 40-something women to 20-something women on what we have learned in life about career, passions, self-fulfillment and relationships. Most recently a director at The Futures Company, a strategic marketing and trend consultancy, Christina has made a career out of understanding insights that drive women’s aspirations and life decisions.


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