Defense. In football–it wins championships. In life, it can erode relationships.
There is something so basic to our existence that says, “I am being attacked; I must defend.” In fact, in many cultures and even religions, “defending oneself” is deemed an acceptable reason or excuse for almost any action, even fatal action.
I think that perhaps this automatic tendency toward defense mechanisms–this instant reaction of fight/flight/freeze–is hard-wired into us humans. Perhaps we developed it over time from our earliest ancestors–those cave-dwellers whose lives were “nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, Leviathan). They (understandably) were hyper-vigilant and ever-ready for an attack or a threat coming out of the darkness to steal from them, or kill them, or eat them.
In ancient times, then, defensiveness was a practical survival skill that ensured the continuation of our species. Today, though, most of us (thankfully!) don’t need to be “constantly on the defensive.” In a post-apocalyptic, Rick-Grimes-is leading-us-in-a-small-band-against-the-walking-dead-world, yes; in a disagreement with your spouse, no.
Sometimes, the people who love us or work with us want to give us some information–call it “constructive criticism,” “feedback,” or “notes on your performance,” it really just is information. Perhaps it is fact, maybe it is opinion, it could be truth: at some point, someone will want to tell you something that could be hard to hear. It is the rare person who leans in to that encounter and says, “Tell me more.” Most of us–even practically perfect counselors like myself!–lean back and “put up our dukes.”
Defensiveness can stunt growth. There is often something that we ourselves just don’t see, and that is preventing us from achieving, winning, or succeeding. Defensiveness can weaken, numb, stagnant, or destroy relationships. At times, our loved one wants to say, “Please hear me: when you do this, this is the result. I’d like it if you did this instead.”
So, how do we overcome this automatic tendency toward resistance or anger?
First, realize that you’re doing it. Recognize that you’re in one of those moments when someone is trying to tell you something and you don’t like what is being said.
Next, identify the person’s intent in sharing this with you. Chances are, they are telling you something in the spirit of goodwill. They want to help you or “us.”
Then, practice using phrases such as these: “I hear what you’re saying.” “I guess I didn’t see it that way.” “You’ve given me something to think about it.” “I think what you’re saying is ___.” (Or, even the super-evolved, “Thank you for that feedback. I’m gonna let that percolate and then get back to you.”)
Most people want to at least feel heard. These phrases show that you want to hear them, that you’re listening and not just waiting for your turn to speak or marshalling your defensives, getting ready to devastate them or their argument. Lean in to what they want to say.
Remember this: pointing out the mud on my shoes doesn’t make yours any cleaner.