Stop Being Defensive & Learn to Listen

When someone comes to you with an issue about a choice you made or an action you took, do you feel like you immediately have to justify your reasoning or defend yourself?

Do you start listing all the reasons for why you did what you did?

That is being defensive. (This was a painful newsflash to me in my 20’s when I was an assistant talent agent). Watch this week’s episode to hear my cringe-worthy story.

It might seem obvious that being defensive can be a major block to effective communication. The reality is…we all do it to one degree or another.

So the real questions to ask are: “Why do we get defensive?” and…“How can we stop?”

In all my years of practice and of research, I’ve learned that having the most effective communication possible is what makes the deepest, most vibrant, healthiest and truly loving relationships flourish.

Effective communication is something I am super passionate about, so that’s why this week, I’m tackling defensiveness, how to raise our awareness around it and how to stop it from blocking our greatest potential in all of our relationships.

Why is defensiveness so damaging to our relationships? As one of my personal mental health heroes, Dr. Harriet Lerner, would say:

“Defensiveness is the arch-enemy of listening.”

Why? Because you can’t be defensive and listen simultaneously.

It’s impossible. There are all different levels of being defensive, and there are many reasons why some people are more defensive than others.

So much of it has to do with the home you grew up in and the behavior that you saw modeled when you were a child. Questions to guide you:

  1. When problems or conflict arose, what kind of behavior did you witness?
  2. How did your parents or caretakers communicate? With one another? With you?
  3. Did you grow up in a very authoritarian home?
  4. If you made a mistake, how was it handled? Was it a big deal?

You might have grown up in circumstances in which it was natural for you to be defensive or always on guard to protect yourself. If your childhood environment was chaotic, scary or dangerous and there were serious consequences to your mistakes or behavior, it makes sense that defensiveness would become a part of your self-preservation strategy.

If you grew up in a very strict household, it could even have been very natural for you to lie to get out of trouble. The child within you would benefit from you giving yourself some grace as to why you did what you needed to do in order to avoid pain or punishment.

In adulthood though, if defensiveness has become an ingrained behavior, you could be compromising the quality of your relationships.

I had an experience in my early 20s that stuck with me for the rest of my adult life (I share it in the video above) and it led me to research what defensiveness is and how it impacts relationships. Because of that experience, I dove deeply into studying the dynamic between defensiveness, listening, and relationship development.

So let’s get a little into why defensiveness can have a really negative impact on your relationship. Dr. John Gottman, the founder of the Love Lab, has been taking a research-based approach to relationships for more than 30 years. He’s systematically observed thousands of marriages in order to understand the science of relationships, and became well known for his ability to predict within a 94% accuracy if a couple would eventually divorce, just by spending a short amount of time with them.

Dr. Gottman identified what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” when it comes to relationships. When these four factors are present within a couple’s dynamic, it can spell out a “love disaster”, as he puts it. These negative patterns of behavior are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling (being withdrawn in anger)

Since this week we’re focusing on defensiveness, I want to expand a little on the dynamic between the first two “Horsemen” on Gottman’s list.

Defensiveness and criticism can really go hand in hand within a dysfunctional relationship. There’s a painful cycle that can get played out over and over again. If one partner is harshly critical and the other responds with being defensive because they feel attacked, that can trigger even harsher criticism and so on. Slowly but surely, these behaviors can scratch away at the foundation of any relationship. It becomes this never ending cycle of defensiveness and criticism, where nobody is listening and everyone’s feelings are being hurt.

If the ability to listen is compromised by our ingrained defense mechanisms, how can we consciously choose differently?

Below are the best tips that I have for you so that you can raise your awareness about your own defensiveness dynamic in your relationships (or you can download the cheat sheet here.)

  1. Do a self-inventory. Are there any resentments you’ve been holding onto in your relationships? Time to get clear. Are there things that you need to talk about that you haven’t yet? Hidden resentment can be fuel for the fire when it comes to defensiveness, so take some time to do a full inventory of everyone in your life and write any unresolved feelings or issues down on paper.
  2. Dialogue is not the same thing as a debate. Make the distinction. Remember, the goal as you embark on any kind of resolution is that you are listening with the intention of understanding. You’re not listening in order to crush the other person’s theory or what they’re saying with your own bullet-pointed list. The difference between a heart-centered dialogue and a debate is simple. In a debate, there’s a winner and there’s a loser. In a dialogue, the ideal is for both people to come out winning, with a better understanding of the other and a deeper connection.
  3. Make the shift from past-focused to future-focused…especially when things go wrong. How do you express yourself when something happens that totally sucks, but you’re working to be mindful and loving and all of the things? It is completely appropriate to say something like, “Hey, I was really upset that this happened.” Then, you can make a simple request for how you’d like things to be better in the future. The end. Focus on making a future request, because that is where the possibility of something positive happening lives. Belaboring the past really breeds defensiveness because it is just criticism. Be willing to get into solution mode, and you’ll start to avoid the defensiveness cycle.

One more point about effective listening: why should we care? Why does it matter that you actually value becoming a skilled and athletic listener in your life?

Because authentic listening is the road, the doorway, or the bridge to intimacy. @terri_cole (Click to Tweet!)

Be aware of what your intentions are with your beloved when you communicate. Do you want to be right or do you want to be understood? It’s pretty much impossible to want to “win” and to be lovingly communicating with a partner at the same time–they are pretty much polar opposites.

If what we’re really seeking is healthy, vibrant, flexible, durable relationships, then listening is what enables a true coming together. Listening is what makes possible a conscious, mindful creation of a deeper understanding of the humans in our life.

I hope that you got value out of this episode. If you did, please share it with the humans in your life. If you have not already subscribed to my YouTube channel, you can do so right here because I’m starting my live Q & A show next month! I would love to take your questions live, so please sign up right here to get notified.

As always, thank you so much for being here. for caring about your relationships and your own mental health, and for sharing this work with your world. I so appreciate you. As always, take care of you.

Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. Sign up for Terri’s weekly Newsletter, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.

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