Dealing With Defensiveness

How many times have you attempted to address an issue with your partner only to have them skirt the issue or turn the problem around on you?

Defensiveness can be a huge relationship breaker. It prevents people from working through important issues because they’re not able to communicate their needs or  make requests.

Defenses are a means to throw you off track; to confuse you so you can’t convey your message, and in turn, the defender doesn’t have to respond.

Though defensiveness takes many forms, the way to effectively respond to it is generally the same: remain focused on your original point.

The following information comes directly from a great book on boundaries called  “Where To Draw the Line: How To Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day” by Anne Katherine, M.A.

Whether you encounter these defenses frequently or you’re the one guilty of using them, awareness is the first step to learning how to diffuse them.

Seven common defenses:

1. Anger. Sure, there are times when anger might be an appropriate response, but if it’s an initial response before the conversation even starts, it’s a defense mechanism. It can be a way of saying “Don’t go there. I’m going to try stopping you before you even start. If you confront me, I’ll be angry at you.”

Response:  Responding to the anger will lead you away from your main point. Ignore it and proceed with the conversation.

2. Missing the point. The goal of this defense is misdirection. If you’re asked to give examples of the issue at hand (which is an appropriate request), but then the person starts arguing the example, you’re now sidetracked into addressing the example, instead of the main issue.

This is what misdirection might look like: Your main issue is that you feel ignored when your stepchildren are visiting. Your spouse asks you for an example. You say “Last weekend, they walked in and didn’t say a word to me. Then you three proceeded to start a game without inviting me to join.” He responds “Well, you didn’t seem like you were interested. And you were mad at me. I wasn’t about to invite you to join us when you’re in that kind of mood.” You say “No I wasn’t. I was waiting to see if the kids were going to talk to me.” And on and on…

You’re stuck defending yourself in the example instead of addressing the fact that you felt ignored.

Response: State that you don’t want to argue the example. The example is only to illustrate your point. Get back to the original issue.

3. Accusing someone of feeling something they’re not. This defense is usually very effective at sidetracking the initiator. For example, if you’re calmly addressing the issue and the person says “you’re furious!”  it’s easy to then become angry even though you weren’t a minute ago.

If you start arguing about whether or not you’re angry, the defender wins.

Response: If you become angry, acknowledge it and return to the main issue. Say, “I’m angry now, I wasn’t a second ago. As I was saying…” and return to the original point.

Or, if you don’t become angry at their accusation, say “I’m not angry, as I was saying…”

4. Offense. The best defense is a good offense. If you find yourself struggling to respond to one attack after the next, you’ve fallen into this trap.  You’re again sidetracked, because you’re busy responding to multiple attacks. You’re just trying to keep your head above water. The other person is making you wrong, and you’re getting further and further from your original point.

5.  Multiple defenses. This might include accusing you of overreacting or acting inappropriately for a given circumstance,  and bringing up old arguments.  This is all an attempt to confuse you and make you wrong.

Another common defense is mirroring you incorrectly. For example, if someone says you’re yelling abusively when you’re actually just raising your voice in frustration.  This can make you feel wrong, and again, throw you off track.

Response to #4 and #5: “You’re responding with one defense after another. Please do your best to listen to me. If you have a problem with ____ , that is a separate issue that I’ll be happy to discuss at another time. Right now, I’m talking about  ____.”

This also might be a good time to ask for a time out. Take a few minutes to calm yourself. A few deep breaths will help you get centered so you can return to the main issue.

6. Parroting. This might look like: “You aren’t listening to me.” “You’re not listening to me!”  This is when someone takes your statement and uses it as their own. It’s another way of trying to throw the initiator off track.

(When I hear this one, it always makes me feel like I’m back in grade school.)

7. The need to have the last word. You know who you are. You just have to have the last word or you feel like you’re going to explode. For example, “Fine, just walk away like you always do.”  This one isn’t as damaging as the others, but it keeps the conflict alive.

Katherine also states, “The first time someone acts as if they are being accused, you can reiterate your own purpose, need or intention. Clarify the boundaries of your concern. For example “I’m saying this, I’m not saying that.”

Explain how you want the other person to receive you. For example, “I’m not accusing you of being bad, I am saying something important to me. You are doing something in our relationship that feels bad to me. I want you to listen to my concern.””

The more you respond to someone’s defenses, the further you get from your original point.

The key is to stay focused. If you need to, write down your main issue before you address it. Refer to it when you start getting off track or drawn in to the defenses.

Defensiveness can cause suffering for everyone, so do your best to respond appropriately and be aware when you’re the one on the defensive.

© 2012 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

(Photo credit: graur codrin)