“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” –Stephen Covey
Defensiveness is a normal human reaction. We all get defensive from time to time when we feel that we are under attack. While it is normal to feel defensive, in a relationship it often becomes an unhealthy pattern of behavior. Defensiveness is the third of John Gottman’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ Take the following exchange for example, “We’re always late! Why can’t you ever be on time for anything?” Which gets a reply of, “What do you mean I’m always late? You are the one who can never leave on time!” From this point the conversation goes downhill. I envision defensiveness as a shield that gets raised whenever we feel that our partner’s words are like daggers. We then load our own arsenal and begin firing back. In defensive mode, it is all about self-protection and in order to protect our self we need to blame our partner or make them wrong in some way. It becomes a war of words, in which there is no winner.
So, how do you get out of the battle of defensiveness and put down the weapons? Dr. Gottman’s antidote for defensiveness is responsibility. Taking responsibility disarms our partner. In the previous example of being late, if the partner had responded with taking responsibility it may have sounded like, “You are right, I was not paying attention to the time and I realize that I need to be more aware of what needs to be done before we leave next time.” It sounds easy to take responsibility, but it is not natural. Often, we don’t feel that it is our fault. We truly believe that the problem lies solely in our partner. It takes a good deal of self-awareness in order to take responsibility. One of my favorite scriptures from the Bible is Matthew 7:3 which asks, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” It is much easier for us to see the faults of others then it is to take responsibility for our own shortcomings. For us to grow, we need to become curious about ourselves. When our partner fires a complaint at us, becoming curious instead of defensive can stop the battle. By taking a moment to reflect on the partner’s complaint and exploring it with genuine curiosity, we are often able to find something that we can take true responsibility for. This is completely different from the martyr saying, ‘Just blame me, it is always my fault.’ Martyrdom is just another form of defensiveness. Taking responsibility is truly listening to what your partner is saying and becoming curious about what can be done to resolve the problem. How different would your relationship feel with both partners taking responsibility?
Next week I will explore the last of the four horsemen, Stonewalling.