We are all a bit defensive at times – especially when being criticized. Who really likes to be criticized anyway? It’s not fun, and our impulse is often to reject the criticism or attack the one giving it — regardless of whether it is valid or not. Unfortunately, our defensiveness can cause us to ignore potentially useful feedback that is necessary for growth and improvement. Whether it is from our boss, the person we are caring for, our parents, our children, our spouse or our friends, learning to communicate without defensiveness is one of the most important factors in determining success in your life and relationships.
When people feel unsafe or vulnerable in a conversation, they react by either fighting back with sarcasm, becoming angry, or fleeing the conversation in silence. It is not about protecting yourself; it is often about avoiding the uncomfortable feelings within yourself. Getting defensive temporarily blocks those feelings, but by learning how to recognize your own defensiveness as well as others, you can learn to let yourself experience those feelings — regardless of how uncomfortable they may be. Then, you will be better able to steer the conversation back on track so that you both feel safe.
Signs of defensiveness can include: overstating your position, agitation and perspiration, attacking the other person, talking rapidly in a higher pitched voice, projecting, repression, verbal aggression, rationalization, becoming judgmental, dominating, passive, blaming, indecisive, etc…
If you find yourself in one of these defensive states, try shifting to a state of curiosity and discovery instead. Asking yourself, “Why am I reacting this way? What is making me feel vulnerable?” can help identify your triggers and open yourself to listening and discovering something about you or your behavior. If you find others in one of those defensive states, try asking “Does it feel like I am attacking you?” and then listen to their response. Reserve judgment, be patient, and try to understand why the other person is becoming defensive. Remember that whenever someone is feeling unsafe, they won’t be able to hear you until they start feeling safe again.
Keep in mind that the majority of the time, when someone is offering criticism, it is an opportunity to see and hear from a different perspective — allowing us to learn and grow. Being defensive is a huge barrier to that communication and can stunt our growth. It can be difficult when you are working so hard as a caregiver to be told where you are falling short. You might feel unappreciated during that conversation, but you also might discover that practicality is more important to your loved one than the level of quality you were striving for. Recognize that sometimes communicating those criticisms can be just as difficult as hearing them. Don’t let defensiveness be a barrier in your conversations and communications. Learn to instead be open, curious, to discover and listen.
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