Defensiveness vs Acceptance

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Based on personal experience and decades of teaching interpersonal communication I’m convinced that the biggest barrier to good listening is defensiveness—the uptight feeling we have when we need to protect our self-image. For example in the course of a conversation our partner makes or even implies a criticism of us, we automatically defend ourselves and stop listening, or even lash back with a counter-criticism. “You didn’t keep your promise”,  Maria tells Pedro. Immediately Pedro says “Are you calling me a liar?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” she replies. “So now you’re calling me stupid, too?” It keeps going downhill from there, a series of crossed transactions, or the “crazy eight”.  This can result in one or both then giving the other the silent treatment, or walking out, slamming the door, even domestic violence.

They are using “you language”, from the critical parent, giving in to the impulse to protect their self-image (or the inner child) by attacking the other person. The curious, thoughtful part, the adult, is put out of commission.

If “I language” would have been used instead, Maria would have said, “I have a problem: didn’t you say that you would sweep the floor?” Pedro would more likely respond on the adult level with “Sorry, I forgot.”

Each of them needs to learn how to turn on and show acceptance.  When we are accepting, we rise above the need to protect our so-sacred picture of our self, so we can learn something and solve a problem. Maria would have accepted—not approve of—Pedro’s failure to sweep the floor, and tried to fix the problem, not affix blame. And when Maria said “You didn’t keep your promise!” Pedro would recognize that his self-image is being threatened, and accept that problem. He would turn on curiosity and try to fix the problem, too. “Oh really? I forget—what did I promise?”

Typical defensive behaviors are judgmentalism, superiority, control, dogmatism, indifference and manipulation. One sign of this is “you language,” as I’ve pointed out. Acceptance involves staying in the adult in Transactional Analysis language, instead. For instance, Maria could have said “It looks like you forgot to sweep the floor, and it bothers me. How can we solve this problem?” In other words, she’s describing the situation and her feelings about it. (Acceptance doesn’t mean just tolerating something bad.)

So, how to turn on acceptance?  First, pray—ask God for help in loving and understanding this person right now. Realizing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” reduces defensiveness.

Next imagine yourself as the bigger person, here.  Then remember how you enjoyed successfully doing something, like a hobby; get into that mental/emotional zone and from that, just look at the negative situation. Go back and forth until your tension is gone, and acceptance is turned on. Instead of hooking the other person’s defensive side, you will be using opposite, supportive behaviors, with “I language.” This helps the brain be at its best and helps you forgive the other person, and even yourself!

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