Defensive Move

playful collaboration

At school, I have a class that requires team work. We have three HUGE projects throughout the semester and, for each project, we are in a different team. We are nearly done with our second project and, for both experiences, I have been incredibly blessed to be on the BEST team. Based on feedback from the class and the grade from our professor for my first team, we were the best of the class overall. Based on my experience, the synergistic effort and the work we have produced thus far, combined with the absolute joy of the process, my second team is shaping up to be likewise.

The other day, my team had a grand time together at our “company” photo shoot, which actually captured the laughter and joy of our process together. The images from the shoot are playful and show the collaborative, dynamic energy of the group. I was really excited when I saw them because of how perfectly they caught the essence of how I have experienced this group to be.

I am really familiar with the work ethics of myself and four of the other team members. The remaining two members are a new experience to me and I haven’t known what to expect. At our last meeting, after the photo shoot, we gathered at a table on the patio to brainstorm and we were talking about how responsibilities would be delegated and how copy would be edited to fit in the space.

One of the “new” team members (I’ll call this person “Joe” to protect the identity of him or her), Joe, was asked by our chairperson how things were going on in the portion of our project for which he was responsible. His response, “Well, like all things in my life, I’m about two to three days behind.”

Given that we are two weeks away from our presentation – and one of those weeks is Spring Break – I felt a little concerned at his response, but I let it pass, trusting the chair or co-chair to handle it. As creative director, it is not my call to monitor the team members unless it’s effecting the overall proposal so I went on collaborating with the art director about the collateral he is overseeing.

While making notes, I heard Joe say to the art director, “Well, if you need to edit any of my copy, then I would appreciate you asking me first.”

I looked up and felt the art director take a breath. This was my area, so I stepped in, “Joe, let me be clear on what I just overheard? Did you just say you wanted say on how your copy was edited?”

“Yes,” Joe responded. “I am attached to what I write, so I would like final say on how it is edited.”

“That’s the art director’s and editor’s responsibility, not yours.”

“Well,” he said, scooting his chair back from the table. “I don’t care. I want to be included on how my copy is edited.”

I felt confused. He had just said, not a minute earlier, that he was behind on everything. So I asked, “So do I understand that you are telling the art director that he cannot edit your work?”

“Yes,” Joe said, somewhat challengingly and with a tremor of anger coursing through his energy.

“So if it needs to be edited, are you readily available to give suggestions?”

Joe sarcastically replied, “No. I am a hermit who lives in a mountain and cannot be reached.” He pushed further away from the table and stood up with a huff.

The copywriter sitting next to him stared at Joe in awe as Joe yelled, “Have you,” he jabbed his angry, pointing figure in my direction,”experienced me as not doing my part? Are you implying that I’m not doing enough? Have I NOT been responding to emails so far? Have I NOT been doing what YOU want me to?”

He stormed away from the table as he said it, projecting his voice over his shoulder more loudly as he walked away from us. The copywriter said quietly, “But it’s spring break…”

“Exactly, Joe,” I said, following the lead, “It IS spring break so you could very well be out of town and unavailable. Are you feeling defensive?”

He stomped back to the table and slammed his body into the chair. He glared at me and I was a little stunned by how angry he was. At this point, the entire table was silent and watching the showdown.

“I am in town for the entire spring break. I return emails. I do my work. And I will be editing my own copy for whatever you are creating.”

The chair and co-chair quickly diverted the conversation onto the topic of what additional work we would all be doing over the holiday. Joe seethed in his chair and, as we assigned the different parts of the presentation, he snidely remarked, “I will be handling the cocktails.”

It was the oddest experience and completely unexpected. It did not feel in alignment with the overall collaborative experience of the entire group. Even the quiet copywriter who has been unable to put in a lot of effort due to an overloaded schedule has been fun and cooperative. This outburst from Joe was… well… it was weird.

What I’ve learned over my lifetime is that group dynamics are an animal all unto themselves. The energy is unpredictable and can be very volatile. What I also know is I am a magnifier. Therefore my presence magnifies whatever the parties involved in a situation are experiencing. I believe the best in people. If they allow me to see the best in them, it is magnified and amazing results are produced. If they fight my vision, it gets ugly because my energy magnifies whatever energy is in the space and, in that case, it’s “fight.”

In that moment with Joe, I could have fought back, but it would have made things worse. Instead, I chose to listen to him – not only his words and body language, but also his energy. He was scared because he thought I was seeing the worse in him and calling him on it. He was embarrassed by his perception that he wasn’t enough and that he thought that was what I was saying about him. Something had happened – whether earlier in that meeting or during something completely unrelated to the meeting or the class – that had triggered Joe’s ego and he was wired to explode in defensive crossfire when the next boundary was crossed. I happened to be the one to find the hidden land mine.

In looking back at the situation, I feel such compassion for Joe because he was like a cornered animal. Something was happening for him and the rest of us could just sit back and watch in horror as he detonated erratically and spasmodically. The level of his rage and defense was so out of context for what we had been experiencing together for the hour leading up to the explosion, there had to be something huge going on for him simmering just beneath the surface. I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it’s pretty bad because the results of the stewing were caustic.

There are times in life where you will be met with a challenging situation that is unexpected and out of left field. Maybe someone will come unhinged right before your very eyes, somewhat like Joe. Or maybe someone will come unglued because you left the toilet seat up or the toothpaste cap off. Or maybe, just maybe, it’ll be you who rips off your partner’s head because the bagger put too many cans in the plastic bag and it broke as you were carrying it up the driveway.

In times like this – whether you are the one who is throwing the grenade or the one blown to bits by it – compassion is your number one “go to” maneuver. Because maybe, just maybe, the soldier who just pelted you with shrapnel is doing so because he has too much of it inside and he doesn’t know how to let it go in an easeful way. Just love the soldier, let it be, and walk away from the firing zone. Sometimes that’s all you can do when a defensive move has been played.


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