Have you ever been in a conversation and felt that the other person was not really listening to you? Perhaps you have observed a conversation and realized, Hmmm, that person is not really listening but just waiting to respond. Chances are, if someone was giving you feedback instead of making you feel truly heard, your first response might be defensiveness.
We all have flaws in our personality—things we are not proud of that perhaps affect how we act or relate to other people. Over the last five or six years, I have become more aware that one weakness of mine is defensiveness.
Relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman uses the metaphor of the Four Horsemen to describe four types of communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The third in Gottman’s list, defensiveness is typically a response to criticism from another individual. It is a way of reacting, but you might not always notice that in the moment.
How do we listen authentically without getting defensive? It may be more difficult now than ever. People seem to be more divided on topics, which makes it exhausting to enter into healthy dialogue rather than reacting and getting defensive.
With practice, however, I can now check my reflexive defensiveness. I have learned a handful of principles we can apply in conversations and relationships to help us become better listeners, without reacting in a defensive manner.
Listen with the focus on learning
When listening to another person, are we really listening? Or are we just waiting for our chance to respond? If I am honest with myself, more often than not, I catch myself falling into the trap of not being a good listener.
For example, if my sister wants to express her frustration with something I said or did, my first instinct is to jump to my defenses. I have to catch myself to focus on what she is saying, not just how I want to respond. I have found when I focus intentionally on doing this, I am more quick to own my part in what we’re discussing.
Experiences like this have taught me to focus on my role as a listener with the goal of learning or understanding something about the other person. My role is not just to wait until I can respond, but to listen attentively so I can understand what the other person is sharing with me.
Think before reacting
Taking a complaint or comment personally can often lead to a defensive response or attitude. If you feel yourself getting defensive, take a moment to internally take a step back and find out why. Ask yourself: Why am I getting defensive?
Is there truth in what is being shared with me? If so, why am I reacting in this manner?
Most likely, what the other person is sharing is about their needs, not yours. Try to calm yourself as you listen. Perhaps take some deep breaths as you take a mental step back to more fully understand what they’re saying.
Use “I” statements
Using “I” statements can be one way to help curb a defensive response on your part. “I” statements reflect your thoughts, feelings, and perception of what you just heard. The moment we start throwing around the word “you” (you always do this, or, this is how you always act), it has the opposite effect.
This is why it’s imperative to start sentences with “I” when responding to something that triggers your defenses. This softer approach can help keep the conversation on track without falling down a spiral of accusations causing the other person to get defensive as well.
Use a talking-listening boundary
Another way to avoid getting defensive is to use a trick I learned in therapy, which, after practicing it for several years, has become second nature. Here is how it works in three easy sound bites:
1. “When I heard you say …” Repeat exactly what the person said to you.
2. “What I thought about that is …” Now share your perceptions or interpretation of what you just heard.
3. “And about that I feel …” Lastly, share your emotions on what he or she said and how it made you feel.
There was an incident recently when my dad said something not intending to be hurtful, but for me it stung and hurt my feelings. Instead of jumping to my defenses, I slowed myself and said, “Dad, when I heard you say _______, what I thought about that was _____, and that made me feel sad.” Using a talking-listening boundary helps me not blame the other person while taking responsibility for my own feelings in the situation.
An important preliminary step before using this tool, is first to acknowledge and affirm what the person just shared with you. When you take time for both people to feel heard and validated, it can help diffuse any tension and make the conversation more productive.
Own your part and apologize
When applicable, an authentic apology goes a long way.
A genuine apology can help diffuse a tense situation and can indicate you are taking responsibility and owning your part in the situation. If the situation calls for it, take responsibility for yourself. Something as simple as, “I am sorry for how I acted (or responded). I want to use this as a learning opportunity,” makes a difference.
Deep down, I think we all want to be effective and authentic listeners. We want to be known as the sister, coworker, or friend, who can honestly listen and receive what is being said.
Learning to listen without getting defensive won’t happen overnight, it will take time and practice. But I have learned that now I hold more ownership and personal responsibility in the conversations that take place in the different relationships of my life.