The Antidote to Being Defensive
Are You Defensive?
So who among us hasn't been defensive? Don't fudge! We all have. Certainly there is a time to defend ourselves, but for the most part, we engage in being defensive when it really doesn't help our cause. True defense is different from defensiveness. Being defensive implies that we don't really feel secure in our own thoughts, actions, beliefs or whatever the challenge may be. Of course when we feel attacked, it is a natural reflex to defend the fort, but really, how effective are our defensive actions? Usually not effective at all. That's because as we defend, the other side increases the attack, and we get into a vicious cycle of attack-defend, attack-defend, and on and on with no real resolution and bad feelings all around.
Become an Effective Listener
The best antidote to defensiveness is to employ the total opposite strategy, which is to listen. Not easy, for sure, and it takes practice to get good at it. Listening diffuses an attack usually quite well. I'll tell you what to do later on about attacks that can't be diffused, but for now, let's just assume the person you are dealing with is not abusive, but is telling you something you don't want to hear or don't like and that you think is inaccurate. Moreover, what is being said is bringing about an emotional reaction in you that makes you want to defend. If there was no emotion involved, then it wouldn't be a problem and you wouldn't feel the need to respond. Defensiveness comes about when it feels personal.
So the way to work it is to notice immediately when you feel that emotional response come up from within you, and turn the focus away from defense and toward active listening. This is difficult, but if you catch it right at the beginning, you can do it and gain control over your emotions and the conversation. Take on the attitude of being an investigator who is trying to investigate what's being said or offered up. Take whatever is being said and ask the person to elaborate on it. You do this by asking questions and repeating back what you think is being said over and over until the other person feels totally understood. A really good statement to get the other person to become a little softer in their delivery is to say, "I really want to understand what you think and feel," or " I really want to understand how you see this." That lets them know that you are not going to defend, but are going to listen, so they feel less need to be so strong in their delivery. It gives you some breathing room.
If someone says to me, "You always take over the conversation when we're talking to our friends," I'm probably going to feel attacked and hurt. After all, that's a pretty inflammatory statement which I'm sure isn't true, right?! For starters, they've pulled the "always" card, which definitely brings on a defense, and the statement itself is on the harsh side. There's no soft-pedaling. Feels attacking, yes? It does and it is. However, if I defend with "That's absolutely not true at all," or "That's actually what you do!" or something even more emotionally laden, you know where the conversation is going, don't you? Yep! Right down the rabbit hole with results that are probably going to take some time to get over and straighten out. The alternative is to say instead something along the lines of "How so? Could you give me an example? I really want to know what you mean." A question that inquires or investigates sets the whole conversation onto another track. You go with it rather than resist it. Tell me more. And then when an answer is given, continue the questioning and comment back always to show you understand what was said. Back to my example, I might end up saying something like "so you felt like I took over and maybe you didn't get to say what you wanted . . . " You go back and forth from asking questions about what is said (the inquiring part), to commenting and clarifying what was said and what was felt (the confirming part).
Isn't That Just Giving In?
You may be squirming at this point because you're thinking, "Yeah, and what if they are totally off? Am I supposed to agree with them and isn't this kind of listening and confirming an agreement?" No it isn't. Not at all. The real trick in all of this is to really know and understand that because you investigate what someone else thinks and feels doesn't mean you are in agreement with them. Far from it. You may agree by the time you've heard them out, but you may not, and understanding their point of view does not imply agreement. If you really know and understand this fully, you won't feel so emotionally compelled to defend right away.
By trying to truly understand the other person's statement, point of view, and feelings, you will diffuse the attack . . . in most cases. I say in most cases because sometimes people are simply abusive meaning their intent is be abusive or mean and they are not really interested in being understood or coming to a consensus. For those folks, it's best to step out of the conversation altogether and make it clear that although you may be willing to discuss an issue, you will not tolerate being abused.
But What if What They Say is Completely Off?
We still have the problem of correcting what we think is not accurate. Once you have spent enough time listening and confirming what the other person thinks and feels, - and you'll know when this is, because usually they have become more conciliatory and are no longer on the attack - then you can take the floor and respond to their assertions. You have listened carefully and feel that everything you've heard is not really accurate, so now you can say something along the lines of, "Well I completely understand what you're saying, but now let me explain it from my point of view." Then proceed. Stick to "I" statements meaning you talk about what you think and feel, not what the other person is doing or saying.
Back to our original example, after I've listened and diffused the attack, I might respond with "although I get what you're saying and I can see how you might arrive at that conclusion, I just was excited about the conversation and had a lot to say. I certainly didn't mean to take over if it seemed that way, but I did have points to make and I was going with the flow of the conversation. I will keep in mind what you've said, however, in the future. Thanks for the feedback." Sound like eating crow? Not really. You haven't entirely discounted what's been said, but you have explained your point of view.
Really, What They Are Saying is Not True!
What if what the other person says is totally off meaning there is absolutely no way what they are saying has any reality to it. In that case, as you ask questions, be sure to question each premise that comes up. It might be that the other person catches their own mistake. If not, then when it's your turn to state your view of the situation, be firm in what you think and how you see it. Agree to disagree if necessary, but thank them for being candid. If the other person has been particularly hurtful in their delivery, you can say it now. "I appreciate you telling me how you feel, but I have to say that the way you said it hurt me." Again, if you have given the other person the time and attention to explain their point of view, you are entitled to have their attention to give your side and to let them know how you feel about their delivery if it has been harsh or hurtful. A note here in reference to couples: Sometimes a dispute may take several days to completely resolve, and a follow-up conversation the next day can be used to iron out the way you speak with each other when there is a hot topic.
Practice Makes Perfect
To get the hang of working on defensiveness, I would suggest trying to cultivate this technique of listening and confirming in situations that are not emotionally charged for starters. Practice it anytime someone is talking to you about something. Ask questions and confirm what you hear them say. It doesn't need to be overdone, but if you make it a habit, it will be much easier to use when you need it in a more emotionally charged conversation. You will also find that most people appreciate attentive listening. It actually improves communication, creates consensus, fosters intimacy and positive feelings, and makes life more interesting.
Check Your Emotions
When you are challenged, notice your emotional response and check your reactivity before it escalates. SELF-TALK:
"I don't like what I'm hearing and I can tell I'm getting upset, so I'll take a deep breath and move toward investigating instead of reacting."
Begin the question and answer process. Make sure to ask, then clarify what you've heard, and confirm the feelings coming from the other person. SELF-TALK:
"My goal here is to completely understand his point of view. It doesn't mean I agree. I'll have my turn soon enough."
Wait for an Energy Shift
Wait until you feel the emotional energy has changed and the other person is no longer on the attack. Summarize what you've heard and set the scene for your response. SELF-TALK:
"I feel the shift and now I need to make sure I completely understand everything that's been said. I can respond in a moment."
Assess the Truth
Assess and respond. SELF-TALK:
"Was there anything accurate to what was said? If so I will own up to it. Otherwise, I can now respond, but I will continue to keep my emotions in check."
Respond Appropriately and Respectfully
Use I statements, notice the level of receptivity, and agree to disagree if there is no consensus. SELF-TALK:
"I am happy with the way I am handling myself. I am being respectful while stating my case. I am not so rigid that I can't see when I am in error, but I also am able to be firm in my point of view."