Responding, Not Reacting

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Being defensive is one of the most ineffective behaviors we can exhibit. Unfortunately this behavior is all too common. It is much more effective to respond, not react, even when what we are hearing or feeling could trigger defensiveness in us. So, yes, the feeling of defensiveness can be normal. We can feel defensive, but we do not have to act upon those feelings. Surely as adults we know that we don’t have to act out all of our feelings, especially those that aren’t going to be productive. But what are some tips and strategies that can help us with this? There are several.

It should first be noted that it is hard to not act defensively when we feel defensive, so we should first reframe what we are feeling. Take a deep breath, pause, and think about an appropriate response. Depersonalize it. Assume that what you are hearing isn’t intended to create defensiveness, or any negative emotion. Convince yourself that the other person has good intent, just isn’t able to communicate as effectively as would be preferred. Assume the position of a mature and in control (not controlling) person, one who wants to be a problem solver with the other person. Ask a question, don’t make a statement. A question that can be asked is a question asking for information. For example, someone might say, “You aren’t listening to me!” A defensive response would be, “Yes, I am!” said in a reactionary tone of voice. Instead of making a reactionary statement, a question that could be asked is, “What did I say or do that gave the impression that I am not listening?” There are other ways this question could be asked, but I recommend this approach. The other person should hear that you want to understand what you did, not what they heard, with the focus on you, not them. Now, this may not work with a truly hostile person, but probably nothing else will either.

Don’t make the communication a debate. Don’t try to win. First understand, and then search for mutual understanding, not necessarily agreement. Don’t try to be right. Be careful with the words you use. Use neutral words, and unemotional words. Verbalize thoughts, not feelings. This does not mean that feelings are wrong and should never be discussed, but initially discuss thoughts. When feelings are discussed the conversation becomes more emotional and it will be difficult for either person to not feel or act defensive. Say, “I think,” or “I am concerned about,” not “I feel that.” Some people use “feeling” language to describe thoughts, and even when that is clear to the other person, the words “feel” or “feeling” can make the conversation emotional.

Own your own thoughts, and describe or discuss those, allowing the other person to do the same. So do not say, “You accuse me of not listening when I am!” Instead say something like, “When I hear someone say (and the word “someone” instead of “you” is intentional) I am not listening and I think (not “know”) I am, that is difficult for me.”

There are other tips that could be given, but at the risk of over saturating the subject.   This is not intended to be all inclusive, just provide some ways to defuse what can be a defensive act/react event. I will appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

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About Patti Fralix

Patti Fralix inspires positive change in work, life, and family through Speaking, Consulting, and Coaching in three specialty areas: Leadership, Managing Differences, and Customer Service. Her leadership firm, The Fralix Group, Inc., has been helping clients achieve practical and tangible results for twenty-two years.
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