11 Tips to Stop Getting Defensive
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Look at these cats.
You immediately understand a potentially horrendous cat fight is about to start. The defensive one is cornered, in protective mode, vigilant and ready to strike back. The dominant one is likely to attack.
This defensive attitude is definitely useful if you are fighting- but is it really going to help your relationship move forward if your fight response is activated like this...?
Reducing defensiveness is our topic today.
One definite factor that hinders effective communication with others is when we get defensive- so it is crucial that you learn how to reduce defensiveness, if you would like to see your communication and relationships flourish.
When you are defensive, you are reactive- you react to something that has been said immediately, but that hinders your ability to take in new information, listen to your partner effectively and regard all sides of a specific issue.
Instead, your focus is only concentrated on the perceived attack, which you want to try to counteract. So essentially, you fight back.
Does this really promote peace and balance? Definitely not. It actually gives ground for more fighting...
What does it mean to be defensive?
To defend is defined as “to resist an attack, to protect from harm or danger”.
To be defensive has a double meaning; to intend to defend or protect, and to be very anxious to challenge or avoid criticism.
Therefore it is quite clear that being defensive is the natural response when you feel attacked, threatened or cornered.
The very nature of these words show us why it is actually detrimental to get defensive. You get defensive when you perceive an attack, you fight back, the other fights back...
This all implies war, that a battle has started between the two of you, that one has to win, the other has to lose.
11 Tips to Stop Getting Defensive
1. Recognize it
As with anything else, awareness is the always the first step to tackle any problematic issue.
You need to first recognize you are defensive.
How do you know it, though?
Maybe you are not fully aware of this. Perhaps defensiveness is so embedded in your communication that you don’t see it as such- you consider it just a normal response to what your partner is saying!
When you realize this urge to immediately react to what is being communicated, with an intention to defend or protect yourself, that reactive attitude is defensiveness.
You feel accused, unfairly attacked, cornered, hurt or frustrated, so you strike back.
How do you do it?
Either by blaming them instead, about their own responsibility in the situation or something from the past, in a look-who’s-talking manner
Or by directly defending your position
The problem with defensiveness though, is that it is perceived as blame by your partner, and your conflict may easily and rapidly escalate from this point on.
Remember the STOPP acronym, the CBT tool that can help you take some distance from any impulsive, automatic reaction?
Take a breath
Observe yourself and the situation
Pull Some Perspective
Practice what Works
Taking a breath before reacting is a crucial step to control yourself. It simply buys you some time and gives your prefrontal cortex the opportunity to assess the situation better, in order to find the most appropriate way to respond.
When you feel you’re triggered to fight back and defend yourself, just after you recognize it, take a deep breath. Don’t snap back immediately.
You can then mindfully consider:
What triggered you from what they said?
How did that make you feel?
Why is that?
As well as finding the grain of truth in their words, from their own perspective.
Does what they say resonate with you?
Is there a way you unwillingly may have hurt them?
Do you recognize your part in this?
3. Don’t interrupt!
Interrupting your partner is one of the blocks to active listening and communication.
It indicates what they are saying is not as important to you, as what you have to say.
If you have a tendency to be defensive, learn to hold your tongue! Give your partner the time to continue. Conquer your urge to act impulsively.
As suggested in the Opposite to Emotion Action exercise from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, learn to recognize what your emotion wants you to do.
In the case of defensiveness, the emotion that urges you to act defensively is frustration, feeling hurt, attacked, angry, irritated.
It urges you to attack back. You attack back by interrupting to say what’s on your mind instead. The opposite of this is to not interrupt. It is to just listen wholeheartedly.
Your emotional mind wants to react in a protective stance, in order to rectify what you consider as unfair and unjust. Since your emotional mind is activated, it is very probable that your Wise Mind is somewhat turned off- meaning that you can’t really evaluate the situation rationally and objectively, so that you act accordingly.
If you blurt the first thing that comes to your mind while your partner is still talking, it is probably something defensive you are going to say, which will worsen the outcome of the discussion.
4. Practice Active Listening
Our communication breaks down because we do not listen actively and mindfully.
When you try to shift from defending / attacking back towards listening and understanding, you earn valuable relational points- because we all yearn to be listened to and understood.
What is your partner actually trying to tell you?
Can you listen to them fully, with your undivided attention?
Do you hear their message?
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Dr. Stephen Covey in his influential book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, underlines the above as a substantial principle you have to master and employ, if you want to see improvements in your communication and interpersonal relationships.
If you proceed with this rule in mind, it can help you reduce defensiveness.
Seek first to understand what your partner is trying to tell you, what bothers them, how this makes them feel.
If it is unclear to you, ask for more information. Explain that you don’t really understand why they’re saying this, ask them to give you examples in order to be able to see the situation from their perspective.
6. Your partner is not the enemy
We are urged to defend ourselves when we perceive an attack. Traditionally, an enemy is one who can attack us.
In interpersonal relationships though, it is helpful to realize that your partner is not your enemy.
Rather, the issue that has caused the argument to erupt is the joint enemy of you both- the issue is the enemy of your relationship.
If you can keep this in mind and realize you’re in this together, that can shift your perspective and stop you from being defensive.
You don’t have to defend yourself and strike back. You do have to listen to them, understand it, let it sink in, evaluate it with an intention to eventually resolve it.
7. Don’t countercriticize
Your partner’s complaint triggers memories of how their behaviour has negatively affected you and hurt you in the past.
Remember this is not the time to bring it up! Your partner has taken initiative to express a complaint, so the focus should be just that.
You can voice your complaints about them at another time, when such a thing can be the focus of your entire conversation, and not a defense strategy.
8. Accept Responsibility
As underlined by the Gottmans (relationship experts), defensiveness is one of the Four Horsemen of Relationship Demise.
The antidote of defensiveness is accepting responsibility for your part in what your partner is trying to express to you, instead of snapping back and getting them where it will hurt them.
There’s a grain of truth in whatever we communicate to each other:
Even if you feel it is unfair,
your partner was hurt because of their perception of something you said or did.
You can’t argue about the way someone feels. They feel how they feel, be it fair or unfair in your perception.
Accepting responsibility can be something as simple as apologizing for your part that hurt your partner, even if you do not completely agree with it or did not do something to hurt them intentionally.
“I am sorry you feel hurt. I did not realize my behaviour affected you like this” is already huge progress in a conversation, because it softens your partner and helps them realize your willingness to accept responsibility for your own contribution in the interaction, instead of throwing the ball back at them directly.
9. No but’s
“Yes, but…” is a very familiar way to show the other that you half-agree and half-understand what they are saying.
"But" basically cancels out the "yes" part, and indicates you are defensive and aim to justify yourself.
Indeed, every action has a reaction. You did something as a response to what your partner did, and that’s what hurt them.
Yet it is futile and counterproductive to justify yourself in this way in the midst of the conversation, because it will give out the message that you still want to defend your position, instead of listening, understanding, and accepting responsibility for your part.
10. Validate your partner’s perspective
Accessibility, Responsiveness and Engagement are 3 vital aspects of a secure bond that characterizes mutually satisfying relationships, according to Dr. Sue Johnson.
Even in the midst of an argument, it is important to show your partner that what they told you has reached you- even if you do not understand it fully. Express your accessibility, responsiveness and engagement to them. Validate their point of view.
This can be as simple as telling them “I hear what you’re saying, I understand you are hurt, and will carefully consider it”.
Take the time you need in order to truly process and evaluate what they told you, even if nothing has been resolved so far. You can return to the conversation once you have regarded their points and can reply to them with a clearer mind.
11. Know your limits and express them
Maybe it is not the right time to have this conversation, because you are tired, cranky, upset about something different or just not in the mood to process and resolve conflict.
That’s okay- as long as you know your limits, and express those to your partner accordingly.
If you are in a negative emotional state already, you are more likely to get defensive and critical during a challenging conversation. Therefore, perhaps it is better to avoid it altogether for now, and save it for a more appropriate time.
If you can’t have such a conversation right now, it is preferable and more respectful to directly say so, rather than have it but not be really present for it.
Express this to your partner, and commit to have this discussion at a time that is more suitable for it. Try to be specific if you can, e.g. “I understand this is important to you, but I am not in the right state to discuss this right now. Can we have this talk tomorrow?”
It may be difficult to stop being defensive, if this has evolved as your default attitude during conflicts.
However by following the above tips and with a conscious intention to stop engaging into this potentially harmful tactic, you can definitely succeed in becoming more mindful, more present, more understanding of the other and more accountable in your interactions- thereby avoiding defensiveness.
This will undoubtedly reflect positively in your relationships too. Your partner will definitely observe your effort at listening to them better and less biased, from a position to understand rather than fight back.
Positive change often has a domino effect- your partner will probably be inspired to attempt positive change in your interactions as well.
There's only benefits to enjoy, so tame your defensiveness starting now!