Communicating Without Defensiveness

Communicating without Defensiveness: How to help people feel safe enough to communicate effectively

Good communication is one of the critical factors in determining success in your career, your relationships, your life. With so much riding on your capability as a communicator, you probably don't need much convincing to improve this facet of your life.

In any conversation each person's sense of self is vulnerable. How often have you started a conversation with someone, about what seems a fairly inane topic, and all of a sudden you find yourself caught up in a hotbed of emotion and frustration? Possibly finding yourself wondering, 'what on earth happened?'

The simple answer is that one of you started to feel unsafe, to feel threatened. (Note this isn't referencing physical safety, it is the threat to emotional and self-worth safety). 

People feel unsafe whenever they fear:

  • Being judged and found to be less than what they want others to perceive them as
  • A loss of status
  • Their self-image is under challenge
  • Their self-esteem is threatened
  • Rejection

Understanding the Fight or Flee Syndrome

Whenever people feel unsafe in a conversation they either fight (e.g. controlling, labeling, sarcasm, anger), or flee (e.g. silence, avoiding, masking) and effective communication stops. The discussion shifts away from the issue at hand, toward the protection of the self.

Even though it may seem like you are still discussing the 'issue', in reality, you will be discussing the person's fears - yet they probably don't even realize themselves, that this is the 'real' conversation you are having.

You may not initially understand what it was that you said, or did, that triggered the other person's feelings of vulnerability. However, once you realize they are feeling vulnerable, as a skilled influencer, you will do what it takes to get the conversation back on track, by working to make the other person feel safe again.

Defensiveness is one of the mechanisms that people use when they are feeling unsafe in a conversation, and can cause a discussion to go astray. From time to time even the best of us can become defensive in a conversation. Sure signs are:

  • Righteous indignation
  • Overstating your position
  • Stop listening to them, and listening more to your inner conversation
  • Agitation and perspiration
  • Talking rapidly in a higher pitched voice
  • Attacking the other person
  • Judgmental
  • Sullen
  • Suspicious
  • Vindictive
  • Indecisive
  • Dominating
  • Indirect
  • Passive
  • Blaming
  • Bossy

And the list goes on ...

Communicating without defensiveness

People become defensive when they feel unsafe

Curiosity and Discovery ... The Tools to Successful Conversations

If you're speaking with someone and find yourself behaving in any of the ways listed above, it's time to shift your state. Particularly if you place any value, whatsoever, on the relationship with the other person. You need to shift from 'defensiveness', to a state of 'curiosity and discovery'.

Defensiveness only causes you to become more entrenched in your position. Whereas curiosity and discovery enable you to make sense of why you are reacting the way you are. Or, why the other person is reacting the way they are if they have become defensive.

Curiosity and Discovery will cause you to ask better questions of yourself "Why am I reacting this way?"What is triggering me to feel vulnerable?" Asking these types of questions enables you to shift your thinking, and come to know yourself more intimately. This is the first step in creating a more authentic relationship with yourself, and consequently with others.

What Can You Do If You Notice Someone Becoming Defensive?

Firstly do a feelings check. This doesn't mean you say, "You are getting defensive" - that's an accusation that will probably only escalate difficulties - and is definitely not communicating without defensiveness! 

Use Curiosity and Discovery

Instead, as before, go on a journey of curiosity and discovery. Say something along the lines of, "Does it feel like I am attacking you?" then, listen very carefully to their response. 

Taking the accusation out, and focusing on the feeling and the concern behind it won't necessarily magically make your problems disappear, but it will give you a better chance of having a meaningful and healthy dialog.

Understand that whenever someone is feeling unsafe, they won't be able to hear you. They won't hear you until they start to feel safe again. If you want a healthy conversation with this person, then take responsibility for getting it back on track.

Sift Fact from Story

Could there be reasons, that you don't know about, that are triggering their defensiveness? Often, we tell ourselves that the other person is acting this way because he or she doesn't care about our feelings or is being selfish - interested only in his or her agenda. We get caught up in stories rather than fact. Read this article to understand how to sift fact from story. Being able to sift fact for story is one of the keys to being a superior influencer.

Seek to Understand

Suspend your judgments, be more patient, and seek to understand before you act. 

Ask yourself: "What could be causing this person to act this way, that I'm not seeing right now?" When you ask this question, it holds you back from vilifying the other person. You also don't oversimplify ... which gets you closer to discovering the truth of the situation ... and when you do this you set in motion what you need for the situation to be successfully resolved.

To discover more about this style of thinking and to fine-tune your capability at communicating without defensiveness get your copy of "Successful Feedback Strategies - Navigating your way through Challenging Conversations with Difficult People and Situations" today.

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