How Defensiveness Can Destroy Your Relationship (and what you can do about it)

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Your defensiveness is killing your relationships, and you may not even realize it.

There’s a reason why, according to John Gottman, defensiveness is the third of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships. 

Down-regulating one’s defensiveness is the “work” in Making Relationships Work.

What? Me being defensive?

I’m not defensive!

YOU’RE the one that’s always defensive!

Let's Talk About Diffusing Defensive Communication

“Projecting” is the typical response to feedback, especially if you are defensive.” Futhermore, some people even go so far as to become angry and accuse the other. Being defensive is a knee-jerk reaction; we all do it, but it’s not healthy in relationships. 

We believe that other people’s bad behaviour towards us is intentional. On the other hand, we dismiss our lousy behaviour as non-important. We tend to attribute our own mistakes to external factors (the weather, the traffic, COVID-19, etc.). So, blaming somebody else is a lot easier than looking at ourselves in depth and accepting responsibility.

What can cause a person to be defensive?

A person reacts defensively because he/she anticipates a threat in their environment. It is not because they want to be difficult, but it is innate in every one of us. In our cavemen days, defensive behaviour saved our lives. But in today’s world, the threats are no longer a matter of life and death; yet the impulse to defend ourselves is still there.

Some react defensively as a response to the other person being defensive towards them – a chain reaction. Defensive behaviour can be a complex and murky issue. During our lifetime our behavioural patterns develop. We learn many of them in early childhood when we copy behavioural patterns we experience in our families. It takes introspection to become aware of them, which is part of the personal development work process. Defensive behaviour causes stress. It’s the “fight” in “flight-or-fight.”

Beyond the mental and emotional factors, there are types of behaviours that cause people to respond defensively. According to Psychologist Jack Gibb, Ph.D., defensive communication has six behavioural categories that create defensive responses in people:

  1. Evaluation/Being Critical – A constant focus on catching people doing something wrong, rather than right, creates a climate of defensiveness. Critical statements are often verbally finger-pointing, accusatory in tone, and usually start with “You.”
  2. Control/Manipulation – Using all sorts of behaviours to control or manipulate people will lead to defensive action. Being used by someone else is a feeling no one likes.
  3. Strategy/Guarded/Withholding Information – When someone feels they are being left in the dark (or purposely excluded from having the information they should know), they react defensively.
  4. Neutrality/Aloof – Shifting blame, making excuses, and rationalizing behaviour lead the recipient to raise their defence levels.
  5. Superiority – Making someone feel inferior by using your power, status or knowledge will raise their defence levels.
  6. Certainty (Dogmatism) – It’s my way or the highway. I’m right. You’re wrong. Either/or, and other kinds of “all or nothing” thinking and communication cause people to react defensively.
Defensiveness: The Not-So-Silent Relationship Killer | Roth Associates in  Psychology

How to Deal With Your Own and Other People’s Defensive Behavior

It’s hard to separate a person from their behaviour or the situation. Again, some people’s defensiveness is so deeply rooted in their behavioural patterns that there is little realistic chance they will permanently change. However, there are some helpful strategies we can use to deal with our defensiveness and that of others:

  1. Describe what’s happening to you, in a neutral way, starting with “I”- “I feel humiliated when you put me down in front of others.”
  2. Focus on the problem, not the person – try to understand the situation by asking questions. Invite the other person to share their point of view, collaboratively: “What do you think?” There’s a big difference between being told what to do and being asked your opinion!
  3. Be honest! People loathe being used and will resent you if you have an underlying agenda. Communicate openly and honestly. Don’t you have all the answers? It’s only human, so own up to it. Do you feel triggered because you suspect that someone else has a hidden agenda and want to use you? Be honest: “I have a feeling I don’t know all the facts. Tell me what you really want, and we can find a solution.”
  4. Empathy: Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Through self-improvement, counselling, training, or mentoring, explore the causes of your defensive behaviour. What are the triggers that make you feel threatened? Having a better understanding of yourself will help you regulate your behaviour and give you better insight into others’ behaviour. Active listening is a great way to learn empathy and make the other person feel heard and understood.
  5. Equality: Treat people as equals – Collaboratively approach other people, looking for ways to help them win in the situation. Take time to identify and recognize their needs, discover what’s important to them, and validate their concerns. Think you’re the smartest person in the room? Think again. There are talents that other people have that can take situations/projects/relationships from good to great
  6. Be flexible and move from dogmatism to openness. The fewer people feel boxed into either/or, yes/no, right/wrong choices, the less threatening the situation. Of course, there are times where things need to be done in a specific way. Still, if you approach the case with a spirit and attitude of openness rather than “my way or the highway,” you’ll get a more open response.

Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. The opposite of defensiveness is openness. It creates an atmosphere of freedom, growth, respect, and trust. 

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Claudia Neumeister

Claudia Neumeister has 20 years of experience as a headhunter for international corporations. As someone who loves connecting people (and who has created successful marriages in her private network), she has decided to apply her skills to creating long-lasting personal relationships at Luxdates

All stories by: Claudia Neumeister

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