If you can resist the urge to get defensive in conversations, it will change your life.
Defensiveness shuts down conversations, usually in a bad way.
Why Do People Get Defensive?
- Feeling threatened: When we feel like we are being attacked or criticized, we want to defend ourselves. This also happens when someone criticizes something we associate with or attach our identities to. When someone criticizes our blender, we feel like they are criticizing a part of us.
- Fear of failure: If we are afraid of failing or making mistakes, we may become defensive when our performance or abilities are questioned.
- Insecurity: If our self-worth is being challenged and we have low self-esteem, we are going to be defensive.
- Need for control: If we have a strong need for control, we may become defensive when we feel like our authority or power is being challenged.
- Lack of trust: If we have been betrayed, becoming defensive prevents us from future harm.
- Misunderstandings: This one is surprisingly common and one of the saddest/craziest ones, because things escalate unnecessarily and relationships can be ruined because decisions were made with wrong information.
Simply being aware of these causes is huge. Next time you get defensive, you will likely see that it’s because of one these on the list.
If you need nothing from someone, why would you get defensive?
If you need something from someone, why would you get defensive?
Before we get into things we can do, we need to consider the other person in the conversation.
We usually think the person we are talking to is saying what they are saying because of us and what we are saying.
When someone recklessly passes us in traffic, we instinctively wonder what we are doing wrong. More often than not, we see that driver go do the same thing to the next car. It has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with them.
In a sense, nothing is personal.
We all bring assumptions and our own experience into any conversation.
So what we are often doing in conversations is projecting.
In psychology, projection refers to a defense mechanism in which an individual attributes their own unwanted thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto another person. This can occur both consciously and unconsciously, and can serve as a way to avoid or deny uncomfortable aspects of oneself.
For example, someone who is highly critical of others may be projecting their own insecurities onto those around them. Projection can also occur in group settings, where members may collectively project their own fears or anxieties onto an outsider or perceived enemy.
Thinking about projection can be helpful to better understand our own internal conflicts, but it can also lead to misunderstandings and conflict in relationships if not recognized and addressed.
Some people come into a conversation with hostile intentions. There are many possible reasons for that, but one of the biggest ones is projection. This is extremely hard to keep in mind in the middle of a conversation, but it is one of the most valuable.
What to Do
1. Self awareness: Zoom out during a conversation. Observe yourself and see how defensiveness manifests in your conversation. Physically, you can feel your heart racing and you will notice yourself taking shorter breaths. Is it for one of the reasons above? Without being too mechanistic about it, the real goal is to be able to decide if defensiveness is serving you in that moment.
2. Ask what you are really trying to accomplish before having a conversation. Are both sides having the conversation in good faith? We get baited into conversations and arguments. One day I realized I was having conversations about things outside of our control (e.g. anything you see on the news), and they would get heated. I got to where I’d ask myself: What are we even talking about? The real goal in those situations is less about solving a real problem and more to see if your values align, so there is a place for it, but it is important to recognize that.
3. Detach your ego. Many of the reasons for why we get defensive are because of our ego. Fifteen years ago, I won an argument and someone watching said, “If you insist on winning every argument, you are going to be lonely.” Related to #2 above, we have to ask what the goal is. I want someone to tell me I have broccoli in my teeth. We get embarrassed when someone points this out, but it is helping us.
4. Listen Rigorously. Never let anyone tell you listening is simple. It takes effort to be a good listener, starting with wanting to listen to the person. When we disagree with someone, we become bad listeners.
5. Acknowledge feelings and avoid assumptions. Seek first to understand before you are understood. This habit from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the most recurring and helpful ideas I have seen.
6. Keep your voice calm, even if you are not calm. This is a feedback loop. By keeping your voice calm, it helps you actually be calm. Focusing on your breathing is key. Your brain works better. Your thoughts become clearer.
7. Look for the person’s intent. If I had to sum up everything I’m looking for in a conversation, it is intent. If someone is trying to be helpful or kind, I will give the conversation my full attention and suppress my defensive impulses. If someone is hostile or is trying to be harmful, that’s even more reason to be non-defensive and calm, but the goals are different. If you are not having a conversation in good faith, then it can only go so far.
It requires us to say to ourselves, “Regardless of what this person says, I am going to talk calmly.” This confidence and self-control may take years to cultivate, from awareness and experience to reading Stoic philosophy and yoga, strength training and so on. No one perfects this, but we can improve.
It’s important to pay attention to what defensiveness and offensiveness sounds like in ourselves.
For me, my voice gets louder. It turns into a condescending or domineering tone.
I realized that this was deeply unproductive. If that was the desired outcome, why would I even be talking?
So, I changed.
Thanks to James Bunch and Suzanna V. Wood for reading drafts of this.