If someone says something that we perceive as “You’re bad,” we generally respond in one of two ways:
- You’re even worse (attack).
- No, I’m not! (defense)
Both of these are relationship destroyers. Most of us know that attacking leads to fighting and away from connection. In this article, I will discuss why defensiveness is a relationship destroyer. I will also let you know what to do instead.
When two people are connected, they play off each other. If you zig, I zag. So, when someone gets defensive, it puts the other person in the position of being the attacker – whether they actually were or not. Both attacking and defending sends the message, “You’re the bad guy!” This sets up the hero, victim, oppressor triangle. There are no winners here. This pattern can last forever with no forward movement, only hurt for all players.
So what do you do instead? Here are some skills to help.
The first thing that has to happen is that you notice that your buttons have been pushed. When our buttons are pushed, that alerts us that we have buttons. Buttons are growth opportunities. It’s not about what the other person did or said- even if it truly was hurtful. It’s about how we responded to what they did or said that made us vulnerable. So this step is about noticing that we were tweaked and now we’re in a vulnerable position.
Take a Moment to Pause
Slowing down gives us a chance to respond with thoughtfulness. Our impulses may get us in trouble. Take your time. Step back and breathe.
Think about what really happened. What observable data do you have? Are you jumping to conclusions? What does this situation look like if you remove all the judgment? If you are unsure of what you heard, saw, or interpreted, ask for clarification.
When choosing your next move, be effective. What is your big-picture goal? For many of us, our immediate goal is to feel safe again. This is why we attack or defend. Resist that impulse and lean into the problem. If your big-picture goal is to retain connection with this person, think about what will get you there. Think about the data you just got from getting clear.
Did this person really communicate that you’re a bad person or was that your past training creeping in? If this person really did attack you, was he playing out some past issue? Can you bring it back to the real issue? If you feel safe enough to do this, go vulnerable. It’s a really easy way to neutralize conflict when you’re dealing with someone who cares about you.
Let’s look at an example to make this more clear.
Guy: Are you wearing that?
- Look at what you’re wearing! You’ve got some nerve asking me about my wardrobe. You’re not exactly fashionable yourself. (attack)
- What’s wrong with what I have on? Are you calling me fat? (defensive)
- Yes, I love this outfit!
- Oh! Do you think it’s not a great choice? I really care about your opinion. What prompted your question? I feel pretty when I wear this. It’s one of my favorite outfits.
Do you see the difference? The first two are probably going to lead to hurt feelings. The third doesn’t show any signs of buttons being pushed. It’s assertive and creates no conflict. In the fourth, a button was probably pushed. It acknowledges the hurt feelings, asks for clarification, and shares the speaker’s perspective. It’s much more connecting and honest than the attack or defensive answer.
Defensiveness is one of the Gottman’s Four Horsemen that predict relationship failure. Chances are, if you have one, you have more than one. If you want healthy relationships, you have to know what kills them and what nurtures them. Removing defensiveness as a coping strategy will help you grow with people instead of away from them.