Defensiveness is a factor dealt with in many relationships, whether it be constant trouble or a road block you encounter every now and then. We see defensiveness when we try to talk to someone about our feelings, experience, or opinions and feel an almost immediate wall built between us or accusation thrown back at us. We also see defensiveness when someone comes to us with something that is difficult to talk about or upsetting and we end up building that same wall or throwing back an accusation. It becomes nearly an instinct in some situations and with some individuals in order to feel safe, protected, and secure. Defensiveness, though, prevents relationships from growing, fuels disconnection, and can make communication and empathy much harder for us.
Though defensiveness can feel like instinct, there are a few things we can do to both pay attention to this feeling when it bubbles up inside us and to manage our reactions to this intense feeling.
Try to avoid the word “but.” It is a tempting way to begin talking about your perspective and experience, and at the same time feels negating to the other person. Instead, try saying “I hear your perspective” or “I understand more how you were feeling.” This validates the other person and allows room for more conversation to be had without fear of being cut down.
Let the other person finish their thought without interrupting. Again, a big temptation when we are feeling invalidated. In letting the other person speak without interruption, it shows the expectation that they will provide you with the same respect. Allowing one another to speak without fear of being cut off reduces defensiveness from beginning to end.
Acknowledge when your reaction or response may not make sense. It happens to all of us: we are in the middle of a conversation, or an argument even, and we realize our reaction or response may not match the way we thought it would. Be open and acknowledge that this has occurred to you and continue the conversation to learn more about one another.
Be compassionate to yourself and the other person. Sometimes, the conversations toward mutual understanding and acceptance can be difficult. Breathe and take a break if needed.