Difficult Conversations: Recognizing Defensiveness and Learning Skills to Modulate Your Reaction

Oct 2, 2023 at 3:55 pm

We’ve all found ourselves in defensive situations. Was it something we said or something that was said to us? How one recognizes and addresses defensiveness is an art. Learning the skill of maintaining equilibrium in such situations allows you to communicate at a higher level.

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown talks about how we “armor up” when things are said that make us feel vulnerable, less-than, or uncomfortable. A defensive reaction to something we say or something that’s said to us is a form of armoring up. After all, who likes to be criticized or reprimanded? For that matter, who likes to give critical input?

In these instances, we can become defensive and reactive or we can become inquisitive and collaborative. If we actively listen to the words being spoken and ask curious questions (non-condescendingly), we can stop our brain train from going off the track. We are only able to guide our own response to criticism. Looking to control another’s response is futile. This article provides you with skills to shift how you recognize and respond to defensiveness—whether it’s from you or toward you.

How to modulate your response

The renowned couples therapist, John Gottman, has identified four relationship killers in marriage: defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. They are euphemistically called the “Four Horsemen.” He defines defensiveness as, “the response to criticism.” It is his belief that parties fail to stop, take responsibility, admit a mistake, and respect an alternate perspective.

Yikes, this sounds like any discussion in a veterinary practice between staff, colleagues, or clients. How can anyone stop and do the four things Gottman suggests when they are being attacked?

When an evaluative conversation starts, critical points of view are shared. How do you respond? If information is perceived as accusatory, negative, or shaming, the amygdala takes control. Learning how to stop auto-responses—our self-defense triggers of fight, flight, or freeze—is no easy task. Keeping the acronym “AWARE” in mind can help.

  • A (Awareness) — Become aware of your physical and mental reactions to triggers.
  • W (Wait) — Make a conscious effort to wait to respond. Take a minute, identify your physical feelings of defensiveness, and recognize that you can control how you respond by choosing awareness.
  • A (Accountability) — Hold yourself accountable for how you may have been perceived.
  • R (Responsibility) — Accept responsibility for what you may have missed.
  • E (Establish go-to language that diffuses) — Establish words in response that reflect your awareness and that do not escalate defensiveness.

The first two steps (“awareness” and “wait”)—taken as you feel yourself being triggered—need to be practiced and strengthened. Identifying and controlling your response will help you diffuse defensive reactions in the future. After accomplishing the first two steps, recognize that accountability and responsibility are the next key steps to fully diffusing a defensive reaction. Choose to be AWARE that something went off the rails, and be willing to see your part in the derailment, before choosing words that reflect your awareness.

Be truthful, and leave reciprocal blame and shame at the door—these will not serve you or the relationship.

Preventing and responding to defensive responses from others

Many feel it is much easier to be the giver of difficult information than to be the receiver. In reality, this is not the case. It is as important for the giver of difficult information to communicate collaboratively and control defensive responses as it is for the receiver of the information. That’s why it’s so important that, when you start a conversation of review, you hold yourself responsible for how you deliver the information.

In business relationships, trust is vital. Workplace discussions need to be appropriate, with expectations set and transparency fostered. As long as everyone has the ability to ask questions, defensive discourse should not be triggered.

A sense of vulnerability can be triggered in workplace conversations. The person given the task feels valued and wants to do a good job. The person assigning the task wants the person to be successful. If the person assigning the task isn’t clear on expectations or preparation, criticism will trigger a defensive reaction. Criticism given freely without the opportunity to problem-solve effectively is a recipe for a disastrous work environment. You will be perceived in a way you may not intend or appreciate.

Mitigating defensive reactions in the workplace requires an increase in encouragement to manage the exchange of information more thoughtfully and explore what was done right and wrong while taking accountability and responsibility for every outcome.

The ability to review expectations, ask if expectations are clear, discuss your ability to meet expectations, and reveal where expectations were not met is an art. If becoming a leader is something you look forward to doing, the collaborative communication of good and bad news is an invaluable skill.

To recognize defensive behavior in yourself and others, think of the acronym TREND.

  • T (Triggers) — Take time to examine your own triggers and how your discourse may trigger others.
  • R (Response) — Use curiosity to diffuse a defensive or reactive response.
  • E (Esteem of self and others) — Consider your own self-esteem and the esteem of others.
  • N (New ways to communicate) — Create an atmosphere that encourages collaborative discussion and active listening.
  • D (Deal with it early) — Give everyone involved the opportunity to deal with issues early. Have them write down their feelings so everyone can explore and learn what was said that may have been intended differently.

Trust in your ability to listen first and speak second. Use AWARE or TREND to diffuse your reactivity and the reactivity of others to create a better environment, whether you are the giver or receiver of difficult information. Choose to get it right over being right. It will make your life and the lives of those you work and live with much better.

The following two tabs change content below.
Debra Hamilton is the principal at Hamilton Law and Mediation, PLLC, (HLM). HLM uses understanding-based alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methodologies to transform disagreements over animals in veterinary medicine, divorce, and beyond. Debra facilitates non-defensive discussions between parties, providing them the opportunity to choose peaceful conversation over litigation. Debra speaks internationally at law and vet conferences and is the best-selling author of "Nipped in the Bud, Not in the Butt: How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts Over Animals." She has an internationally received podcast, "Why Do Pets Matter," and holds an international pet planning community call, "The MAAP Plan," which helps its members navigate the journey their pets take when they can't care for them, on Wednesday evenings. She hold board positions on AVMLA (president), SVME, NY Save, The Center for Understanding, NYSBA Women in the Law, and ISCA. She is an advisor to NOMV—Clear Blue task force and Fear Free. Debra is the go-to person for information regarding the use of mediation in disagreements involving animals for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Huffington Post, and US News and World Report. She breeds, owns, and shows Irish setters and longhaired standard dachshunds.

Speak Your Mind