I called a young man who worked with me into my office. "I'd like to talk to you about the meeting we had this morning," I said.
Before I could say more, he launched his defense, "Well, I wasn't told about X, and Y didn't give me the ... "
"Whoa!" I said. "What's going on?"
"I feel under attack," he said.
I looked around puzzled. "Who's attacking you?" I asked.
He looked up as if hit by the realization. No one. No one was attacking him. All that had occurred was his boss had asked to speak to him.
His hunched shoulders dropped and he blew out air. He stretched his fingers in a grasping motion—as if physically trying to let go of his thoughts. I could literally see the battle within—his fight to not be defensive.
Defensiveness—it happens to the best of us. The trouble is when defensiveness gets in the way of communication. When it rears its ugly head, both parties can get mired in the underlying but unspoken perceptions: either poor self-conceptions (a person may worry that he is bad or incompetent and doesn't want to appear as such) or skewed perceptions of others (people are bad, have mal intent).
We're probably quick to defense because so many of us have been on the receiving end of comments that were really about the commenter's own issues than our own. So we grow suspect of intentions. In a word, we don't trust. Not just them but ourselves to know what's valid and what isn't.
No matter the origins, defensiveness never comes off well. So how to prevent it?
First, check your thoughts. If you've got an immediate reaction to something someone is saying it's likely you were busy forming your response rather than actually listening. If you can tamp down your inner fighter for a second you might hear what is being said rather than what you think is being said.
Next, to diffuse defensiveness, it's really helpful to acknowledge it. Even saying out loud, "I'm feeling defensive" can help quell the urge to actually be so.
Finally, defensiveness often springs from harsh self-criticism or judgment. One way to stop acting defensively is to practice self-compassion. Give yourself a break. Instead of anticipating a problem and tensing up, take a breath and tell yourself that you're going to be okay.
When you're not beating yourself up, you give your mind space to consider other possibilities and see a situation from all angles.
Listening without responding or reacting is tough to do, but if you can do it, you'll find that your perspective opens up and as a result, your world does, too.
You can read more by Alicia at www.AliciaMorga.com and follow her @AliciaMorga