Defensiveness is a common and normal reaction in difficult conversations. Often, both people are defensive to some degree.
What? Me? I’m not defensive, YOU are!
Defensiveness happens when you feel like you’re being attacked or accused, whether that is an accurate perception or not. Defensiveness usually arises not because someone is trying to be difficult but rather they are trying to protect themselves.
But, as natural as defensiveness can be, it can lead to a cycle of back and forth defensiveness that takes you in a never-ending circle of arguments.
I recently attended a conference, and, unfortunately I can’t recall which speaker said this, but, it really struck me.“Defensiveness is the death of awareness.”
That is SO true. When I think about the times I’ve felt defensive it feels like the walls are closing in and I become very narrowly focused on protecting myself against the onslaught. I’m just looking down the barrel of a loaded conversation trying to avoid the bullets. There is no self-awareness happening, no good decisions being made and no progress occurring.
In separation mediation breaking through defensiveness is a normal part of the process. I help people to break down the walls that defensiveness creates. There are several ways I do this and I wanted to share them with you as tools you can also use in your interactions with people in your life, whether it is your partner, your children or a co-worker.
The first thing to try and do is to re-frame the defensiveness. We usually view defensiveness as bad and try to get the person to change their behavior. This is usually a fruitless pursuit. Instead, view the defensiveness for what it is – a response to a threat. When you look at it this way you can start to identify what the perceived threat may be for them and address the threat rather than the behavior.
As I mentioned, defensiveness can be a reciprocal circle that is hard to get yourself back out of once you’ve entered. Try to remember in these moments, the only person you can control is you. So what can you do to change the dynamic? Start with changing your tone to a more relaxed and calm state. Empathize with the other person. Even if you think they’re wrong, empathize with how they are feeling and say that out loud. “That must be really hard for you.” Or, “That sounds like it would be difficult to deal with.”
When people are acting defensive there is definitely a feeling of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Move away from a win/lose conversation to one where you get curious about what each of you could do differently. “What could we do different to make it better?” Notice I used “we.” This doesn’t have to be all about you making all of the changes and the other person doing nothing. The use of “we” makes it feel like you’re on the same team trying to figure out what you can BOTH contribute to improve things.
And finally, get curious! This is often the answer to many of life’s conversational roadblocks. Ask questions that help you better understand their needs, their concerns and what’s important to them. In return, you can offer your own perspective on your needs.
When you can break through the defensiveness you are on your way to a more trusting and respectful conversation that leads to effective problem solving and good.