How To Feel Less Defensive

“Have you ever been incarcerated?”

When I was mentoring at Defy Ventures, an organization that trains formerly incarcerated individuals for employment and entrepreneurship, I learned that that was the question participants dreaded most in a job interview (and understandably so, since it often meant the end of the interview).

Though, for most of us, the question we dread being asked may not be as damning, we all have one that puts a pit in our stomach: What’s your market traction? Who are your competitors? Why should we partner with you? Why did you leave your last job? How come you never got married?

Nothing will trip us up faster, however, than getting defensive. As Mannish Sethi, creator of the Pavlok wristband for changing habits, told Business Insider after his painful Shark Tank presentation: “I was caught off guard by how quickly and forcefully Mark [Cuban] turned against us, and that really changed the tone of the pitch.” Flustered, he wasn’t able to address the Sharks’ focus on clinical studies to tell them about the thousands of “real-life user” success stories — at one point, grabbing his face in frustration, saying, “You guys are making me so ADD” — and he walked away without a deal.

So, earlier this week, at the Paris Pionnieres incubator coaching a group of start-up founders in preparation for an upcoming pitch competition, I asked them: “What’s one insecurity you have about your business?” As it turns out, two of them are married to their co-founders — a set-up they’ve found investors typically frown upon —which means they need to be prepared to respond to that concern.

How do you respond to tough questions or being put on the spot without getting defensive? First, understand that our defensiveness stems from feeling judged, that we’re in the wrong somehow, which — thanks to primitive fears of being thrown out of the tribe — our brain translates as a survival threat and goes into “fight or flight.” And in survival mode, as you may have noticed, rational thinking (and active listening) go out the window.

Since hoping that people will not ask you about aspects of your experience that you’d rather not talk about is not a reliable strategy, you’re better off learning how to override the instinct to protect yourself or attack back: Answering “I don’t agree,” “how is that relevant?” bumbling through your answer or becoming a deer in the headlights (my personal default) is likely to trigger a “fight or flight” response in the other person and derail the conversation.

The answer is: practice!

Know your trigger questions and come up with several variations on how to answer. If the question highlights something you know is a weakness — like low user conversion — say, “Yes, you raise a good point and here’s what we’re doing to improve it” (which is what the question is really asking). If the question is about something that was out of your control, like a toxic work environment: focus on what you did accomplish while you were there and that it’s not a good fit with your goals going forward (you get to decide what’s most relevant to answer the question).

Practice saying your answers over and over — at least 20 times, I tell my clients — including having someone ask the question so you can practice feeling the emotional response when you hear it.

Yes, it will be uncomfortable. But the real question is, would you rather be uncomfortable now or later, when the stakes are higher?