When in the midst of a discussion, all we really want is to be heard, and for our point of view to be considered. But sometimes in the heat of the moment if a conversation isn’t going our way, we can get defensive; escalating a friendly discussion into a full blown argument.
A lot of the time this happens without us even meaning to, and we lose control of the situation. We want our views to be understood. But sometimes while explaining our stance we might not realize that we are offending the other people involved in the discussion, turning it into something ugly and running away from the initial point.
The most volatile environment that this could happen is in the work place. You want to appear to be informed and articulate, so you engage with your coworkers about a politically inspired debate. This is an incredibly touchy subject regardless, so approach with caution when flinging your hard-pressed beliefs out in the open. (I don’t agree with the following example but bear with me for a moment). Say that you don’t believe that women should get equal pay in the workplace, because men have to spend more money to please their women. You could have been half-joking when you said it, but now every woman in the office probably hates you, along with many feminist empathizing men. There’s nothing wrong with shaking things up a bit, but think before you speak.
The same goes for friends and family. You don’t need to be as cautious because it’s not going to affect your professional career, but you also don’t want to offend those closest to you. Let’s suppose that you came from a small town, but moved to the big city to find your place in the rat race. When you return home, you view everyone as just doing the same old thing. While that may be true, be careful on how you word things if you decide to bring this up. Don’t use words like, “towny,” because now you’re offending even the people you returned home to see.
The original issue has now turned into a huge conflict.
Now not only do you need to backtrack to get your original point across, but you have to do some damage control to alleviate the situation that is now getting blown out of proportion. The original issue is now no longer relevant, and what should have been a friendly discussion is turning into a huge mess.
When people feel that they are being attacked or judged, they will immediately become defensive and retaliate. The conversation will shift into justifications for their behavior or beliefs that they feel you have been insensitive to, and the remainder of the discussion will consist of you trying to calm them down to realize what you actually meant, and return to your initial point.
It’s not a very good look for you, coming across as judgmental and not accepting of other’s point of view. That may have not been your intent at all, but because of poor word choices, you appear to be that way. Now others are judging you for being judgmental. Exhausting, isn’t it?
Emotions are on the rise and have taken control of the situation. Now all of your efforts are directed at diffusing the situation, and you may not ever get a chance to explain yourself.
Why do we get so defensive?
I think we all know that one person that is next to impossible to speak to, because we know that any little thing will put them on the defensive and shut you out. If you don’t know anyone like this, then maybe it’s you. But why does it happen?
1. Not feeling respected, or that you’re being heard.
Sometimes we react impulsively, or don’t realize the weight of our words until we’ve already said them. Then the recipient of our comments doesn’t exactly take it so well, and the original point has been lost.
Example: You’re unhappy with your boyfriend because he doesn’t seem to have any time for you. You try to talk it out with him, but your first point is that he makes you feel like he doesn’t care. Now, all of his efforts have been belittled, and he feels like you don’t appreciate all that he does for you. It blows up into an argument of accusing each other of not caring, and the original issue doesn’t get resolved.
2. We directly make judgments without explaining ourselves clearly.
Our brains are hard-wired to switch gears into our Self Protective System if we feel that we ar e being attacked verbally, physically, or mentally. Our brains don’t only react to situations instinctively, but reasonably as well to preserve our physical and psychological well-being. What’s interesting about our self-protective systems is that they are not learned. They are genetically manufactured, along with the other facets of our DNA and personality traits. From early childhood we will exhibit this instinct to protect ourselves.
Example: As a small child, you are trying to finish a puzzle before the end of playtime. Now the teacher is saying playtime is over, and you need to put the puzzle away even though you haven’t finished it. In your small developing mind, you feel that the teacher is undermining your ability to finish the puzzle, so you throw a temper tantrum that will nearly drive the teacher to tears.
How to diffuse an issue before it escalates:
1. Mirror the other person after they speak, to let them know that you are listening.
Example: If you’re in the workplace and your coworker suggests an action that you don’t agree with, you can respond by saying that you understand their idea to (reiteration of suggestion) although you think it might be helpful to look at it from another perspective as well, and perhaps find a solution that encompasses both.
2. Avoid using the word “but”.
The word just has a negative ring to it in the midst of a discussion. For example: “I hear what you’re saying, but-“ with just that one word, you have completely undermined the other person. By adding the word but, you are saying that what you are about to say next is more important than the point that they already made.
3. Don’t make judgments or speak about your own emotions without explanation.
Which of these sentences sounds better to you?
“You never take my suggestions seriously.”
“I feel frustrated because you haven’t responded to few of my previous emails, is it because you don’t find my comments to be useful?”
The first sentence is incredibly accusing, and will immediately put the recipient on the defensive. In the second example, the sender fully explains their feelings on the matter, and give the recipient a chance to explain themselves as well.
4. Invite them to give comments so they feel respected.
After voicing your opinion, ask the other person or people in the discussion to voice their opinions on the matter as well, so they know that their thoughts are valued.
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