Tag Archive: defensiveness

Vol #1, Col #7: En Garde!

Col7_EnGardeAs our discussion of “dissociative anonymity” proved, having a disagreement with a stranger, even if it leads to verbal abuse, is an entirely different ballgame than arguing with someone to whom you have personalities, either professionally or personally. Unfortunately, no matter how much you love or respect someone (and vise versa), sometimes things are still said and done that really can’t be taken back. Unlike what the childhood rhyme would suggest, words can AND do cause considerable pain.

Emotions can be both wonderful and debilitating sensations,often simultaneously. As Courtney Love so eloquently put it, “I love so much I hate.” Because emotions like psychoactive substances can become overwhelming to one’s being (mentally, physically and spiritually), developing self-control,learning coping strategies and importantly, mature conflict resolution is essential to one’s very survival. In fact, as a course in criminology I once took taught me, the number one type of homicide is that which occurs between two males, 18-24, fighting over the same female mate. Yes…love can kill.

In any argument, you will find yourself in one of two roles:that of the instigator or that of the retaliator. While both terms conjure up negative connotations, it’s important to understand that conflict in itself is NOT necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it’s how you deal with it that determines whether the outcome is positive or negative. In fact, many psychologists argue that conflict can be the breeding ground for both self and relationship growth.For example, though initiating emotional discussions is not anyone’s particular cup of tea, dealing with issues when they occur (as opposed to bottling up one’s feelings) is a more mature and healthy response in that it prevents resentment, which can lead to subconscious attempts to sabotage the offender,from building up. Likewise, while it may not be a pleasant experience to hear someone out in terms of how you’ve hurt or offended them (it bruises one’s ego after all), allowing yourself to get defensive and failing to validate the  other party’s feelings only ever makes small conflicts turn into maelstroms. With this said, if you’ve got to tango, you need to learn the moves. In any conflict:

1)     It’s important to talk openly, calmly and honestly:

If you don’t feel comfortable in expressing yourself candidly, you may want to contemplate what the relationship in question actually means to you. Those who love, respect and value you will accept you,warts and all. That’s their job as is yours to reciprocate. Accordingly, if you’ve done something stupid, wrong, hurtful, whathaveyou, be mature and own up to it. Accepting responsibility for your actions is one of the first major steps to growing up.

2)      To avoid defensive reactions which bar communications, learn to preface your complaints with statements of care:

For example, before launching into how the offender has hurt you, say something gentle along the following lines: “I’d really like us to be able to have an open and mature relationship with each other so that we can better understand each other’s perspectives. With that said, I’d like to speak with you about what happened the other day. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but (this)and (this action) really hurt my feelings.”

I know this may seem like a bunch of gobbly-goop, but honestly, just making a few statements such as those above before participating in a full-on emotional discourse can save you from getting into a further conflict about the argument itself! There are a few important aspects of the above preface worth mentioning:

a) the emphasis on what you desire in your relationship with the other person. By stating outright how much you value the other person, their perspective and what ideally you’d like to work toward with them relationship-wise, it minimizes the chance of a defensive reaction by reaffirming your words are coming from a place of care and a desire to fix issues, rather than create them.

b) the emphasis on ‘speaking with’ the individual, rather than ‘speaking’ to them. Subtle changes in word phrasing can result in dramatic effects, both for the better or worst. By using the expression “speak with” in this context rather than “to speak to”, it illustrates your desire for cooperative non-confrontational discussion as opposed to lecturing or belittling which again, for obvious reasons, will minimize the chance of a defensive reaction.

c) the emphasis on owning your feelings. Again, though subtle, stating that you felt hurt (ie: an ‘I statement’)as opposed to “YOU HURT ME” (ie: a ‘You Statement’) makes a world of difference in terms of the reaction it’ll merit. By owning your feelings in discussions,it allows you to explain your point-of-view, while at the same time compelling the offender to validate your feelings by demonstrating empathy.


3)     If there’s a chance things will get heated, set ground rules for discussion such as allotting each speaker a time limit to express their concerns, while making it clear that personal attacks will not be tolerated.

If one or both parties begins to “brickwall” (ie: gets so emotional that there’s no logic in their words and they’re effectively only spewing fire from a defensive stance), it may be best to leave the “scene of the crime” until you’ve both had a chance to cool down. Note however it’s important to not leave the discussion hanging in limbo for too long as that too could breed further problems.


4)     Avoid both saying and accepting the “I’m Fine” statement:

In a word, it’s b.s. If there’s a distinct frustration,anger, annoyance etc. in someone’s tone of voice and they tell you “they’re fine”, don’t buy it. That’s not license to poke and prod them however as this will likely only piss them off further. A more successful approach would be stating something along the lines of, “I don’t wish to irritate you, but it seems to me there is something on your mind. If you’d like to speak about it,I’d be happy to listen. I’m just concerned is all.” As with the last suggested phrasing, there are some key aspects to point out here:

a)      the emphasis on not wishing to create further problems and a genuine concern for the individual’s well being. By including both of these considerations in your approach, it should help the individual feel “safe” in expressing their concerns as well as calm any anger that may be brewing, even if what has gotten them riled up in the first place directly involved something you said or did.

b)      the use of “it seems to me” and “I’m concerned”: Again both of these phrasings indicate an owning of your emotions without putting words into the other party’s mouth. If the individual is using the “I’m Fine” statement, the last thing you want to do is assume you know what’s bothering them. NEVER assume anything in a conflict – people will and do surprise you.

c)       the emphasis on when THEY’D like to speak about what’s ailing them. You’ve effectively put the ball in the other person’s court, BUT IMPORTANTLY ALSO indicated you’d like to resolve the issue. This demonstrates a mature approach and again should help the individual open up in a more timely and calm manner.

5)     ALWAYS avoid childish “I told you so”-like remarks as well as passive aggressiveness (ie:acting like everything is fine, only to turn around seemingly of nowhere and explode). I believe this is self-explanatory.

6)      Learn the Art of Forgiving and Letting Go:

You’ve heard the expression, “focus on the task at hand.”While usually uttered in reference to the workplace, it would do you a great service to also employ said suggestion when it comes to conflict resolution.Ongoing guilt-tripping is psychological abuse intended to manipulate and establish unfair power dynamics in a relationship. It’s a low move and accomplishes nothing…nothing positive anyway.

Conflicts, as I stated near the beginning of this piece, can serve as a tremendous source of growth, but that’s only if you allow yourself and others to move forward, learn from your mistakes and let go.

As for forgiving others, set limits and know them. Some acts are altogether unforgiveable – that’s a given — but remember, forgiveness benefits you just as much as the offender. Studies have proven that maintaining grudges not only affects individuals on an emotional level, but further can affect one’s physical health. The same goes for living with guilt.

And finally…

7)      Remember, there is a HUGE difference from the listener’s perspective in terms of being outright called a derogatory comment VERSUS having one’s actions labelled as symptomatic of that derogatory comment (ie: you are a bitch vs. you are being a bitch).


Yes, that’s right folks, for clarity purposes, I’m referencing yet again the concept of the “personal attack.” The former statement above implies a permanent character trait that one cannot change, while the latter points out that while you are clearly displeased with the individual’s current choices/behaviour, you still love/respect them. Criticize actions, not individuals. In other words, this week’s lesson: fight fair.  

Vol #1, Col #5: Bloody Pirates!

Col5_DefensivenessOnce upon a time in a land not too far away, I made the naïve presumption that the world of theatre was somehow more legit than that of rock’n’roll. That was until the following story was relayed to me…

Excited to endeavour to express his artistic side via a new medium, I’ve been assured that the motivation behind the actions in which my good friend (who will remain nameless, out of respect) partook that I’m about to describe, stemmed only from a desire to achieve what was best for the production for all involved.

Upon being cast for their various roles, he along with the others were issued a score, script and cd featuring the musical’s key tracks and provided with the simple instructions that they were to familiarize themselves with each before formal rehearsals began. Well, one can only imagine the dismay he and his fellow cast members experienced when practises started and they discovered that one of the featured tracks was to be performed in a completely different (MUCH higher) key than what was featured on the disc. Worse, the leads in the song were clearly “actors” more than “singers” and their struggle to hit the right pitches was apparent to everyone.

Several under-the-breath comments, grimaces and questions were issued toward the musical director (MD, for short) of the production, but he seemed either oblivious or uninterested in catering to the strengths of the cast. My friend gave him the benefit of the doubt that it was the former and sent him a politely worded email that I agree was anything but confrontational bringing this concern to the MD’s attention. The message emphasized that my friend was merely speaking on behalf of himself and SOME of his fellow cast members with whom he’d conversed, and proposed that perhaps at the next rehearsal a poll could be taken to see how everyone was feeling in regard to the new key of the song.

Now admittedly, this was my friend’s first ever experience with community theatre and therefore he’s willing to admit it’s possible he did not correctly follow protocol here, however it only seemed logical to him (and me, for that matter) that if one had a music-related concern, they’d address it toward the music director. But I digress…

Believe it or not, my friend’s seemingly innocuous act addressing what he felt was only a minor concern led to all hell breaking loose and the MD proceeding to send out a mass email to the entire cast and crew accusing my friend of being the ringleader in a “mutiny” against him. Instead of even attempting to resolve this matter professionally (keep in mind my friend even offered to apologize to everyone despite the fact he’s still not certain where he went wrong), my friend was as they say “cut” from the show.

Now there are several different psychological concepts this story houses within itself (ie: outgroup versus in-group mentality and “scapegoat-ism” to mention a few), but I’d like to offer a theoretical hypothesis for the MD’s over-the-top response:

Generally as a result of some sort of trauma or bullying they’ve experienced, certain individuals (usually those with pre-existing insecurities) develop what is known as a “hypersensitive” disposition as a means of self-preservation. Essentially, on a subconscious level their minds become primed to react consistently in a “survival protectionist mode” (also known as “defensiveness”) anytime anyone proposes even the slightest objection/suggestion in regard to their actions. Given that I’m told the MD was an eccentric fellow and member of a minority group, I’m gonna hazard a guess and suggest that he likely continues to be/has been in the past tormented by others.

Because of this hypersensitivity, such individuals are unable to react rationally (ie: non-defensively/non-emotionally/non-combatively) even when NO clear “personal attacks” are issued (personal attacks to be discussed at length in the near future). As leadership mentor Shelley Holmes explains in her hit e-book, Influence Your Way to Success, a hypersensitive reaction occurs when one feels psychologically “unsafe” in conversation. This feeling of “unsafeness” is triggered by a fear of, “being found to be less than what they want others to perceive them as, a loss of status, [a belief that one’s] self-image is under challenge, [a belief that one’s] self-esteem is threatened or finally a fear of rejection”. Basically, anything that doesn’t fit into the context of “praise” regardless of the tone used, content discussed or the person who is uttering said remarks is interpreted as a means to “go to war”.

It’s important to recognize that the MD’s elected form of strategy (ie: to form a gossip train) instead of having a mature adult discussion with my friend directly or at the least asking the director of the show to act as a mediator between them to resolve the issue, further exemplifies (t)his behaviour is rooted in insecurity: why else would one launch a “smear your enemy/pity me campaign” unless it were to seek the validation of others and therefore denounce any sense of personal responsibility for causing the concern? That’s highschool tactics 101.

The biggest problem however when it comes to hypersensitive individuals is that if you point out their defensiveness, it generally only leads to them then becoming defensive about being defensive. Eugh! Suffice it to say there’s a reason that defensiveness has been labelled one of the “four horsemen of [relationship] apocalypse” by psychology professor and marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman. It not only impedes communication between parties, but ALSO self-reflection on behalf of the individual afflicted by this issue. The reality is this: defensiveness like depression is ultimately something the bearer of said behaviour has to overcome by first being willing to admit they have a problem.

If you should ever (god forbid) find yourself in a situation wherein you’re dealing with a hypersensitive individual, how you react in turn will undoubtedly be affected by your relationship to him/her. If, for example, you’re dealing with a loved one, the best advice I can offer is to gently remind them that the motivation behind whatever you’ve said or done that’s resulted in their defensiveness is purely coming from a place of care and therefore there is no need for them to feel threatened. If on the other hand you encounter this behaviour from a stranger, superior or someone with better established political ties within the group, you may very well be screwed as my poor friend was.