It’s fine to recognize your defensiveness or someone else’s, but unless you actually work on it, you’re not going to make any progress. It can be difficult but it’s not impossible.
Before you can work to fix it, you have to figure out what kind of defensiveness you’re dealing with: explain, agree, agree and resent, deny/avoid, passive aggressive, martyr, attack or blame. They generally follow the same path to fixing, but you should know your enemy.
When you know what you’re looking at, it’s common to point fingers and exclaim, “You’re being defensive!” This usually is followed by the other person making a similar claim. This isn’t helpful.
Instead, say, “I feel like there’s some defensiveness happening”; “I feel like there’s a barrier between us”; “I don’t like how this conversation is progressing.” These are all statements that remove blame from the equation and simply state your displeasure with things.
Sometimes, just pointing out the defensiveness is enough, but usually not. Now that you’ve called out the defensiveness, they’ll probably be even more defensive because they’re kind of embarrassed to be so controlled by their emotions. In this case they’ll usually double down, and you need to be prepared.
If the person goes into a defensiveness spiral, they’ll often just start saying whatever comes into their head. Example: “It’s not me; it’s your fault; you’re overacting.”
While the defensive party is going through this, you shouldn’t chase them. Defensiveness is a bully. As such, its goal is to get a response from you. It’s usually looking to make you mad but it doesn’t really care what the response is; it just wants you to respond to it instead of the real problem.
To counter this, stay on message, as President Frank Underwood from House of Cards would say. They’ll usually rebut your responses but it’s good to have one prepared regardless.
- Explain: A. “See, what had happened was…” B. “I know what happened already. I’m upset because…”
- Agree: A. “You’re right, I’m such a dumbass.” B. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but we’re talking about my complaint, not your feelings. I’d be happy to talk about that after we finish.”
- Agree and resent: A. “I didn’t want to say anything to him but he’s such a control freak.” B. “I understand you have a problem with the way I lead, would you care to expand?”
- Deny/avoid: A. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re overreacting.” B. “I’m not reacting. I took time to think before I came to speak to you and ______ is the problem.”
- Passive aggressive: A. “Yeah, I’ll do that for you. (Under their breath) Asshole.” B. “I heard that. Why’d you agree if you were just going to be mad? You didn’t have to.”
- Martyr: A. “I can’t believe you would do this to me. Stop attacking me!” B. “I don’t feel like I’m attacking you. Can you give me some specific examples of what I’ve done?”
- Attack: A. “Oh, I don’t clean up? Well, fuck you!” B. “I feel like I’m not being heard.”
- Blame: A. “It’s your fault we’re in this situation!” B. “Why don’t explain to me why you feel that you don’t have any fault in these problems we’re both dealing with.”
Essentially, you’re disregarding the insanity and getting back on topic. When you starve defensiveness of attention it won’t know exactly what to do, and you have a chance to handle the original problem.
At this point, you just talk it out. Defensiveness probably still will be around. If your partner is silent, pouty or acting like a bitter teenager, it’s definitely still there but you don’t have to address it anymore. Instead, deal with the original problem using these tips for better communication:
- Accept blame when necessary.
- Stick to talking about their behavior.
- Avoid telling the other person how they feel or what they think.
- Ignore the little jabs, comments, sighs and eye rolls.
- Ask how the person feels and ask them to do the same to you.
- Avoid definite words like always and never.
- Remember that emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are.
- Recognize when you’re being defensive and say it out loud.
- Try to understand behavior and empathize with feelings.
Lastly, one of the biggest causes of defensiveness is someone assuming you’re better than them. You don’t actually have to do anything but stay calm during a debate and people will suggest that you think you’re better than them. In reality, you’re just doing something they’re unfamiliar with and it makes them feel inferior.
If you can find a way to humanize yourself, they’ll see your flaws and be less afraid of your perceived perfection. Try knocking something over, stuttering or pointing out when you feel like you’ve fumbled something.
If you work on this regularly, it’ll be easier to deal. You’ll also find it easier to work on your own defensiveness.
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