We’ve all been there… we’ve been mid-conversation with our partner and then at some point (it often feels sudden), we find the conversation going from mutual collaboration to feeling defensive, which typically looks one of three ways:
- Avoidant or “No way.” We shut down, stop listening, retreat or isolate
- Accommodative or “Your way.” We give up, become passive, feel defenseless, act as a martyr (perhaps in order to end or avoid conflict)
- Aggressively competitive or “My way.” We refuse to listen, we steamroll, aggressively assert our own needs and refuse to compromise
The thing is, none of these communication styles are healthy — meaning they don’t allow us to meet our own needs, the needs of our partner, or the relationship’s needs.
Here are some tips for communicating with your partner without getting defensive:
Actively listen. Stay present with your partner by intentionally focusing on what they are saying and how they are saying it. Face your partner, make eye contact, and give non-verbal (e.g., nodding) and verbal feedback (e.g., saying “uh huh” or “go on”).
By actively listening and staying present, we can avoid common triggers that lead to defensiveness, such as: “tuning out” our partner (this may make our partner feel ignored), assuming we know what our partner is saying, or getting caught up in our own thoughts or feelings, which may escalate the situation.
Avoid Mind Reading. We often make assumptions as to what our partner is thinking, feeling, or even saying. These assumptions are often unintentional and occur because we feel so connected to our partner that our brains automatically start connecting the dots that we think exist.
Building upon the previous skill of actively listening, we must also take a non-judgmental stance towards our partner. We are human, we are not mind readers — meaning we do not always know what the other person is truly thinking or feeling.
We must non-judgmentally listen to our partners so that we can do our best to understand their perspective, not our take on their perspective.
Validate. After actively listening and avoiding mind reading, take a moment before responding to your partner. Our first response is not always the best and will result in the other person getting defensive or disengaging. Allow for you and your partner process what is happening and what is being said.
Then, validate your partner by expressing or reflecting your partner’s emotion or thought back to them. Some examples: “You are disappointed and frustrated with how work is going right now.” “You’re feeling like you are taking on more responsibility at home lately.”
Validation is an emotional diffuser.
Oftentimes, after validation, any defensiveness will dissolve and we can then move to a place of mutual collaboration and problem solving so that our, our partner’s, or the relationship’s needs can be met.
How do you handle not getting defensive with your partner? Or how do you handle your partner when they get defensive?