[My apologies. I am having internet problems at the moment and am reduced to dial-up. So no photos until I am back to a better connection speed. Evan]
I usually have difficulty when people get defensive. I feel surprised and not sure what to say. I know that I’ve offended or hurt them in some way, but I don’t know how. And it doesn’t usually occur to me at the time to stop and reflect about what we have just been talking about, so that I could figure it out. I just want to make it better and get back to the easy relationship we had only a few seconds before.
This is an uncomfortable place for me – the result being that it is easy for me to judge defensiveness harshly. To see it as a bad thing. (I feel bad so the other person’s behaviour must be bad.)
When I’m the one being defensive it is a different story. Someone has denigrated something important to me or crossed an important boundary. I am hurt and need to defend myself against what I experience as an attack.
This isn’t a nice experience. I feel hurt and so I defend myself. At these times it is easy to see defensiveness as a good thing.
These times of defensiveness are usually difficult for both people involved. So, I’d like to make some suggestions about living more easily with defensiveness.
Remembering when we have become defensive.
Something important was going on. What was the precious thing we felt the need to defend? We may find that this is something really important to us. We may find that we are surprised at what we feel to be important.
Remembering how we have responded to other’s defensiveness.
For me there is usually something like a very mild panic. This doesn’t make it easy to respond well. It is possible to understand our reaction – for me to understand that I feel like a child about to get into trouble. Gradually it is possible to let this childlike part of me know that I will look after them the best I can.
Spending an hour or so remembering these times can help us understand and respond less immediately. When we feel defensive we usually attack. This usually happens automatically.
It seems to me that this being our automatic response can be a problem. We forget that we may have other options – especially when we are responding as a child. This can just lead to difficulties that don’t get resolved, and our relationships suffer.
Having taken time out to reflect it may be possible to experiment with different behaviour.
When we become defensive.
It may be possible, if we can see that we are responding automatically, to do something different. One thing to try is saying why you are upset. You may not want to talk about your emotion but you may be able to identify what the issue is for you. You can disclose the issue without going into any details. In this way you can remain safe but give the other person information about how they have upset. This may help them respond better to you.
Another way is to say that we need time out. We don’t need to give an explanation, we may even offer some kind of apology, and then terminate the conversation for the moment.
If it is a relationship where you feel safe you may want to disclose your hurt feelings. Or you may say that you would like to talk about why you are upset later. If the other person is willing to listen this can help the relationship to deepen.
When someone else is defensive.
It may be possible, if we see we are responding automatically, to try something different. We may even want to try an automatic apology – as a way of giving a little time to think and find a way to address what is going on. (I don’t mean as a way of accepting blame but to convey that we didn’t set out to upse the other person.) An apology can be very disarming.
It is also possible to ask what we have done or said. This may not be easy for the other person to say (or even identify – they may not know why they are upset or what it was that we said or did).
It may be possible to keep listening. To reflect back to the person what they have said.
When we are defensiveness this is good information that something important to us has been violated in some way. When another person is defensive then we know that something important is going on for them. If we can learn to find the time and space to listen to defensiveness there is much valuable information – about ourselves and the others we are engaged with. Learning from our defensiveness we can deepen both our understanding of ourselves and our relationships.