My ‘spidey senses’ were tingling.
The knot in my stomach tightened.
My throat felt like it was closing up.
I knew the word was rising up inside of me and yet I ignored that it was coming. My mind shut down to what was being said to me. I was on autopilot, waiting for my chance. And when it came, I blurted out the word.
“But . . .”
Not helpful, Rick.
My wife was sharing her feelings with me concerning a behaviour of mine. And, as I have for most of my life, I wanted to defend myself – about what I had said and what my intentions were.
“But that isn’t what I meant . . .”
In my experience, this type of reaction makes the situation worse. If deflects the conversation away from the other person and what they are expressing and brings it back to me. The result is that the other person feels that what they are saying isn’t important. It marginalizes what they are expressing. I know this, yet I have struggled to stop my way of habitually reacting.
Where does my defensiveness come from? There is no single incident that I can recall from my childhood that it arose from, but it’s been ‘an old friend’ protecting me, for most of my life. It has come to my rescue when I’ve felt threatened. And when I say ‘I felt …’, I am talking about my ego, my sense of self.
But in the situation with my wife, this wasn’t the case. She wasn’t ‘threatening’ me. She was being honest about how a behaviour of mine impacted her. It was an opportunity, if I was willing, to let go of my ego and examine my behaviours and see if they are still worth hanging on to. Do they serve me in a positive way that supports the man I want to be?
Giving myself some credit, I am aware of the habitual reaction I have of getting defensive. I’m looking closer into it, noting when I’m getting triggered toward that reaction.
Here are a few steps that can help manage a ‘getting defensive’ behaviour that I am putting into practice.
- Notice the signs (someone is upset with me, body tenses, mind begins to go into ‘protective mode’, not really listening).
- Breathe, deeply, and focus on what the other person is saying.
- Breathe some more.
- Remind myself, it’s about my behaviour, not me. Don’t take it personally.
- Respond, when appropriate, with phrases like, “I’m listening . . . Thank you for letting me know how you’re feeling . . . What else? …. What can I do to help the situation in the future?”
- Be empathetic. Treat the other person the way I would like to be treated if the roles were reversed.
- Don’t volunteer a rebuttal (my side of the story) unless asked, and when doing so, be gentle with myself and with the other person (keep calm, slow my voice cadence and volume). Explain what is happening – my thoughts and emotions – with me.
The goal is not to ‘cave’ to what the other person wants. It’s to listen, be empathetic, and let the other person know they are being heard. Honour their vulnerability. They are taking a risk to be share their true feelings.
If someone is upset with my behaviour, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about me. In a way, they are letting me know the relationship is significant to them. If they didn’t care they wouldn’t bring the issue up or they’d walk away from the relationship completely.
The person is expressing how they are feeling about my behaviour, not me as a person. I remind myself my behaviours are a reflection of who I am in that moment. However, I can change the way I behave going forward.
What type of man do I want to be? I want to be able to stand up for myself, but to do so without attacking the other person. I can be confident without being arrogant. I can be authentic and integral without being judgmental. I want those who are significant in my life to be able to feel safe in sharing their feelings with me. As I do with them.
So, what happened with the situation with my wife? Well, she called me on getting defensive. She said she finds it challenging to bring up certain behaviours of mine and the effect it has on her, when she knows I have a habit of going into ‘defensive mode’.
I thought, if she can’t talk to me, really talk to me, then I’m not doing our relationship, her, or me, justice. It’s not the relationship I want with her.
I let her know that I heard her, and that I had witnessed my reaction of defensiveness.
I choose to respond differently in the future.
It’s about choice, conscious choice. Choosing my response is always in my control. In fact, it’s the only thing I have complete control over in my life.
And each choice supports the man that I want to be, my values, principles, and character.
‘Getting defensive’ has been a friend to me over my lifetime. I appreciate it trying to protect me. But now, it’s time for me to move on.
For more techniques and tools to modify behaviour, but in a story format, check out my unique and engaging self-improvement novel, The Shift Squad.
I write to inspire men to greater self-awareness, to make better choices and create a better life.
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