Q: Whenever my manager gives me feedback on my work, he tells me that I should not be so defensive. I don't think I'm defensive at all, and that's what I tell him. After I say this, he says my comment is an example of defensiveness, and that's when I do get upset. How should I deal with this?

A: It is ironic that certain expressions generate reactions that are the opposite of their intent. For example, if you tell someone, "Don't be so defensive," the most likely reaction is defensiveness.

However, there actually is a role and time for defensiveness. When people sense they are under attack, it is actually a normal reaction to defend oneself and one's ego. Without any defensiveness, a person is essentially a doormat. However, when people engage in overly defensive behaviors, especially when they should be listening, that is a problem.

If you are certain that you are not engaging in overly defensive behaviors when you receive feedback from your manager, the first step is to recognize why he is making this comment. Essentially, it is a very effective technique to cause another person to lose focus, become upset, and react emotionally. When this happens, the individual who made the claim gains extra control. Since your manager appears to enjoy rattling you by attributing defensiveness to your behavior, the best way to stop these assertions is to eliminate any reactions that hint at defensiveness. When you respond to his comments, stay cool, be brief and businesslike, and focus on facts. When he sees that he cannot rattle you by labeling you as defensive, he is likely to set that strategy aside, at least in his dealings with you.

Q: My last name is the same as a popular food in another language. My manager thinks it's hysterical to make fun of it, but I don't. I find this to be very annoying. What do you suggest?

A: It is never pleasant to report to a manager who is operating at fifth grade level. His comments about your last name are unprofessional and unacceptable. While he may think his comments are fun and in jest, that is not how you see or hear them. As a result, they need to stop.

If you have not said anything to him up to this point, you should do so now. You should meet with him, let him know that you enjoy humor at work, and then add that you do not think that comments that mock your last name are funny. And then state that you want them to end. If you're reluctant to act this directly with your manager, a less direct approach is to say to him, "If your manager were making fun of your last name, how would you approach him and what would you say?" He'll either get the message instantly, or he will tell you what to say. And when he does, you should say it.