Who Me, Defensive?

By Linda Adams, President of GTI

In your relationships at work and at home, you know the discomfort you feel when you become defensive and the unease you feel when you sense it in others.  When we feel threatened,defensive self communication defensiveness or resistance is our initial, natural, perhaps inevitable reaction.  We would probably be surprised if we stopped to think how much energy we use up resisting new ideas, blocking unwelcome feedback, defending our position.  The reaction is so automatic, the habit so deeply ingrained that often we aren’t conscious of being in a defensive or resistant posture.

Defensiveness is an unwanted, uncomfortable feeling–it causes disequilibrium.  Our urge is to make it go away by trying to ignore it or denying its existence even though this is often at an unconscious level.  Most of us have become highly skilled at ignoring the inner cues that we’re resisting–often pretending like everything’s okay without being aware that we’re doing so.  When this happens, whatever feelings or fears or truth lie underneath the resistance remain hidden.

Why does this matter so much?  Because each and every time you pretend that everything is okay when you feel resistant, you avoid looking at, exploring and examining what’s underlying your defensive reaction.  As a result, while you may gain self-protection for the moment, what you lose is a valuable opportunity to get more insight into yourself, to learn more about who you are, to be open to a new way of thinking or being, to be fully alive.

Accepting Resistance in Yourself

Admitting to yourself that you feel defensive or resistant is often very difficult.  We feel that it’s a sign of weakness or vulnerability–a part of us we cannot allow others to see, especially at work.  So there’s a strong tendency to resist accepting that yes, right now, I’m feeling threatened because my boss wants to see me or someone has challenged my point of view in a meeting or my spouse is upset with me or my teenager won’t talk to me.

This inner resistance confronts us with the possibility that something might need to change which most likely involves us.  Often we resist change because it means something new and yet unknown.  There’s comfort in the familiar even when it isn’t working. Maintaining the status quo seems safer–it’s what we know.  So we justify why we don’t delegate even though it means we work far too many hours and are exhausted much of the time; we make excuses for why we stay in a job we have begun to dread; we deny that our relationship with our spouse isn’t satisfying.

The price we pay for continually refusing to uncover and examine what’s beneath the resistance is that we remain stuck, surviving, making do–not living life to its fullest.

To accept your resistance as a natural part of you and to open yourself up to discovering what’s beneath it requires an inner shift–a shift from seeing the resistance as a bothersome feeling to be avoided to seeing it as an opportunity or even as a gift–because it’s a signal that there’s something more.

Accepting Resistance in Others

Just as we feel unease with our own feelings of defensiveness, we don’t like to experience it from others with whom we interact.  We’ve all heard people say things like:

“We’ve already tried that.”
“It would cost too much (take too long, etc.).”
“I’m too tired right now.”

Even when we confront a co-worker, a spouse or a child with a perfect I-Message, they sometimes will react defensively:

“I did not do that!”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why are you bringing this up again? You know I’m already stressed out.”

Reactions like this can cause you to feel defensive and it’s very tempting to respond in kind.  But we’ve all done that and know for sure that it doesn’t work–the interaction becomes an escalating argument or the conversation shuts down.  When this happens, not only does the issue or problem not get resolved, the relationship suffers damage.

To avoid that from occurring, it’s important to shift gears to hear the other person’s feelings.  By actively listening, you send a very important message to him/her:  “I see that you’re upset and I want to hear your concerns.”

Utilizing Resistance

In yourself:  become more conscious of what causes you to become resistant or defensive.  Instead of denying that inner signal, respect it, give it your attention, listen to it–accept it as an invaluable part of yourself that is offering you an opportunity to challenge an old pattern, to learn what’s true for you and to move toward actualizing more of who you’re capable of being.

In others:  become more alert to the signals they give out when they’re feeling resistant and make a conscious effort to listen to them with acceptance, empathy and understanding.  Listening with acceptance gives the other person a chance to vent their feelings and as a result gives them the opportunity to probe below their resistance to discover what’s beneath. They too have a valuable opportunity to discover more about themselves.  Further, the relationship between you is strengthened.