Reducing Defensiveness


Defensiveness: the tense feeling we get when our self-image is threatened by someone’s words or deeds. It’s often reciprocal: when you get defensive the conversation partner will tend to do so also. But accepting listening and honest self-disclosure (“I language”) normally lessens defensiveness in the other person and oneself.

The psychologist Jack Gibb distinguished six overlapping defensive behaviors, and set forth six opposite “supportive” behaviors, which are also accepting.

The most common defensive behavior is evaluation. (“You language” is generally involved.) Another word is judgmentalness, being critical, fault-finding. Subconsciously a person using it is probably boosting his own self-image by criticizing someone else. Evaluation often implies superiority.

In 2 Samuel 6 we see how King David was “leaping and dancing with all his might” wearing only a loincloth which apparently exposed his genitals, as the sacred ark was brought into Jerusalem. One of his wives, Michal, the daughter of Saul, was watching from a window and “despised him in her heart” and then confronted him with sarcasm about his un-kingly behavior. Michal doubtless had the attitude “I would never dance lewdly like that!”  “You point your finger at someone, you have three pointing at yourself.”

David responded defensively and mockingly using other defensive behaviors, superiority—in effect saying “The Lord made me king and I will do what I want” and neutrality—not caring what Michal felt.  Then the story ends with these sad words, “And Michal. . . had no children to the day of her death.” Meaning they no longer slept together, ‘though once they had really loved each other.

This story illustrates the warning Jesus gives in Matthew 7, Judge not, or you will be judged. Remember the “crazy eight”? > > > > >

If Michal had accepted—not condoned—David’s behavior she could have said “I am troubled by how you were dancing by the ark, exposing yourself. I was embarrassed, and it didn’t seem kingly.” David would surely have responded less defensively. Evaluation’s opposite is description: describing what you’ve observed and your feelings about it. (“I language.”)

And if David had imagined himself to be the bigger person, he could have accepted her criticism, even if he did not agree with it, and their relationship could  have been saved. Here’s something else he could have done, if he could have learned the Outcome Thinking Protocol. He could simply count to ten, and pray, and picture himself playing his harp, then look at, or remember, Michal yelling at him, then look at himself playing it, back and forth, etc., until his tension and anger are gone.

Both could have used problem orientation, explaining how the other’s behavior is a problem.

Both evaluation and superiority are involved in what another psychologist, Newcomb, called the ABX theory: we like the other person more when (s)he agrees with us. It takes 3 forms:

     X                                X                           X

  +     +                        +     –                      –    –       – – – –  A common “enemy” brings A and B closer,

A    +   B                 A    –    B                 A   +   B               a common reason for gossip,