Maybe you’re talking with your spouse. Or friend. Or brother. Or colleague. Whoever it is, you know that no matter how carefully you say something, the words won’t get through. They’re just so damn defensive.
You want to scream stuff like, “It’s not a personal attack!” or “I’m just trying to have a conversation!” Mostly, you want to ask, “Can you just stop being so defensive?”
Here’s the thing: No, they probably can’t. It’s right there in the word. They’re defending. “It implies there’s a threat,” says Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself. It could be you, but just as likely your words are triggering something deep-seated.
Once their fears are ignited, all focus is danger related. It’s hard for the defensive person to get out of that mode. And saying something like, “Don’t get so defensive,” is about as effective as saying “Relax” to someone panicking.
So what can you do when talking to someone who always gets defensive? Turn up your empathy and turn down your assumptions, because you’re most likely going into the interaction hot. You’re bracing for that person to feel threatened and that ends up threatening you.
“Then we have two reptilian brains talking to each other,” says Laura Silberstein-Tirch, licensed psychologist and author of How to Be Nice to Yourself. That means both of you are down to three options: fight, flight or freeze. “It’s a limited repertoire.”
You want to open that up. You can open that up. It means going in with a different attitude, almost a blank slate, where what’s happened in the past doesn’t matter, and instead of continuing to pull on a rope, and trying to “win” the discussion, you drop it. As Silberstein-Tirch says.“Our hands are free, and we have the freedom to choose how to respond.”
How To Break Through Someone’s Defenses
There’s no one thing to say to talk to a defensive person, but it’s like any successful communication. Hendriksen says to stay in the first person – “you” ups the threat level – and focus on specific acts rather than making things eternal character traits. Example: “That presentation wasn’t at your usual level” is taken better than “You’re not really good at public speaking, are you?” You can also pepper in ways to make any criticism a show of confidence, with something like, “I’m saying this because I know you can handle it and because you’re really smart.”
“Turn it into faith in them,” Hendriken says. But nothing is magic. Defensive people can turn the most benign comment into an attack, and there’s also something called sensitization. It’s like when hot coffee burns your tongue. Everything else, no matter how cool, will set it off, says Hendriksen. Your words, regardless of how thoughtful, can do that.
In those times, acknowledge the reality. It could be, “This might not be the right time. When would be better?” Or be even more direct with, “It seems what I’m saying isn’t working. How would you approach this problem?” In either of these scenarios, you’re out of the struggle, and giving responsibility to the other person to provide some insight and help with the solution.
“It allows them to show their cards a little more,” Silberstein-Tirch says.
A common frustration in arguments is that the same issue comes up over and over, particularly with relatives and spouses. One approach is to have a meta-conversation, Silberstein-Tirch says. That is, talk about talking.
Consider saying, “I notice when we talk about your mother, things go off. What can we do about it?” Here, you’re not talking about the issue, but talking about talking about the issue, and that one step removed makes it easier for the other person to engage. Rather than bumping heads, you’re now teaming up on the problem, which in couples therapy is called unified detachment, Hendriksen says.
But what also helps is to come into the conversation clean, like it’s the first time. You stay away from lines like, “I know you’re gonna get defensive,” a preface that has never caused someone to exhale. Instead, you want what Silberstein-Tirch calls “beginner’s brain.”
It means being present for the conversation that’s about to happen. It’s impossible to do this every time, but if you can foresee a difficult interaction, deep breathing can help slow you down. So can noticing three things you see, hear, and feel, in that order. “It grounds you in the here and now,” she says.
It all sounds doable and probably helpful, but also like a bit much, especially for someone else’s triggers. Really, it’s not your problem.
Maybe so, and if you had to run through these options all the time with a person, it would be too much. But if it only happens occasionally with someone you care about or need to keep working with, then it might be more beneficial to swallow some ego and take into account what matters the most in the long-term. “It’s the difference between being right or being effective,” Hendriksen says. “Do you choose being right or the relationship?”
“Abnormal Psychology” (PDF). Pearson International Schools.Barlow D (2012). Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach. Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-1-111-34362-0.Bridges JW (1930). “What is abnormal psychology?”.SStanghellini G (June 2013).
“Psychopathology: re-humanizing psychiatry”. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 127 (6): 436–7. doi:10.1111/acps.12091. PMID 23663272.Nevid J, Rathus S, Greene B (2018). Abnormal Psychology in a changing world. New York, NY: Pearson. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-134-44758-2.Herzig T (2010).
“Malleus maleficarum (review)”. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. 5 (1): 135–138. doi:10.1353/mrw.0.0161. ISSN 1940-5111. S2CID 161336612.“Perspectives: Medical”. A Beginner’s Guide to Abnormal Psychology.Cherry K (May 9, 2016).
“What Is Abnormal Psychology?”. Verywell. Retrieved 2017-03-10.Boag S (July 1, 2014). “Ego, drives, and the dynamics of internal objects”. Frontiers in Psychology. 5 (5): 666. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00666. PMC 4076885. PMID 25071640.Turner MJ (2016-09-20).
“Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Irrational and Rational Beliefs, and the Mental Health of Athletes”. Frontiers in Psychology. 7: 1423. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01423. PMC 5028385. PMID 27703441.
Neuroticism’s prospective association with mental disorders halves after adjustment for baseline symptoms and psychiatric history, but the adjusted association hardly decays with time: a meta-analysis on 59 longitudinal/prospective studies with 443 313 participants”. Gilles-Thomas, David L. (1989)
Definitions of Abnormality”. University of Buffalo. Retrieved 2022-06-05.Bennett 2003, pp. 3–5Phares V. Understanding abnormal Child Psychology. Haboken NJ: Wiley.Sánchez de Ribera O, Kavish N, Katz IM, Boutwell BB, Back M (September 2019)Ipser JC, Singh L, Stein DJ (July 2013). “
Meta-analysis of functional brain imaging in specific phobia”. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. 67 (5): 311–22. doi:10.1111/pcn.12055. PMID 23711114. S2CID 46155186.Schacter D, Gilbert D, Wegner D (2010). “
Identifying Psychological Disorders: What is Abnormal?”. Psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.Reed GM, First MB, Kogan CS, Hyman SE, Gureje O, Gaebel W, et al. (February 2019).
Innovations and changes in the ICD-11 classification of mental, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders”. World Psychiatry. 18 (1): 3–19. doi:10.1002/wps.20611. PMC 6313247. PMID 30600616.World Health Organization. “
International Classification of Diseases for mortality and Morbidity Statistics (ICD-11)”. WHO. Archived from the original on 2018-06-19.Davila J, Fincham FD. “
Marketing Programs You May Like: