One of the goals of the human brain is to maintain order and consistency across all information, beliefs and attitudes that it retains. The ability to control and maintain order allows us to feel comfortable and therefore tolerate whatever knowledge is being consumed. When we feel uncomfortable with a communication encounter, whether at home or at work, we tend to become defensive. Being defensive in our daily social interactions has been described as a major barrier to effective communication.
Before we explore how to not be defensive in our communication with our co-workers, bosses, friends or loved ones, we must be able to identify what being defensive looks like. J.R. Gibb (1961) discussed defensive behavior as “that behavior which occurs when an individual perceives threat or anticipates threat in the group.” When we behave or communicate defensively, while the topic at hand may be addressed, the emphasis seems to be focused on defending ourselves. Our attention will be on how we appear to others and what we can do to be perceived more positively. While being defensive, there may also be a need to avoid being reprimanded and/or concentration on succeeding. Defensive behavior leads to defensive listening, “which in turn produces postural, facial, and verbal cues which raise the defense level of the original communicator,” according to Gibb. This communication pattern continues to happen, typically when someone feels attacked or criticized, and leads to ineffective communication.
Defensiveness can sound like:
• Romantic partner: “Did you put the clean dishes away?” Defensive response: “You know I just worked a double; do you have to bother me about the kitchen right now?”
• Colleague/partner: “Noticed you didn’t take the handle on the Code 3 this morning.” Defensive response: “Why are you worried about my calls and what I am responding to? You know it was your turn this time.”
• Supervisor: “Have you made the changes to the report that I reviewed last shift?” Defensive response: “I’m with these inmates for 16 hours straight, I know how to write a report. Plus, when have I had a chance to review it when you redirected me to another assignment?”
Sound familiar? Coming from a defensive posture can lead to a breakdown in communication and can cause the most harm to the relationship. While being defensive can feel like protection from a perceived attack, it rarely solves the issue at hand. Luckily, there are two productive ways to handle perceived criticism rather than becoming defensive. The skill Gottman (2014) identified to replace being defensive with hopes of de-escalating the conflict and removing any potential damage to the relationship is taking accountability. Own up to your behavior without blaming others. This can be done through compromise, showing remorse and using the feedback to improve. Taking accountability can sound like:
• “Sorry for not putting away the dishes yet. I’ll get to it soon; I’ve been tired from all this OT.”
• “Yeah, my bad I didn’t take the handle, I didn’t think I was the closest. Thanks for having my back.”
• “I have not made the changes yet. I have a lot to get done from the incidents yesterday; would you like me to get that done first?”
Besides taking accountability, the next best option is to come from a place of empathy when responding. Having empathy and being defensive seem to be mutually exclusive. Initially, in order to come from a place of empathy, it helps to not be flooded with anger, resentment or frustration. Self-soothing prior to responding (not reacting on those negative emotions) can provide the space to see a different perspective. When we allow ourselves to see things from the other person’s viewpoint, the potential for misunderstanding or assumptions is removed. Growth and understanding can create a more peaceful interaction, especially when we try to empathize with the feelings and intentions of the other person.
The consequences of defensive communication for a spouse, parent, teacher, manager and administrator are fairly obvious. Defensiveness interferes with communication and thus makes it problematic — and sometimes impossible — for anyone to convey ideas clearly and move effectively toward a solution. If you find yourself becoming defensive often and want to improve your interpersonal communication skills, please contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a confidential and free counseling appointment.