There are times when may you enter into a conversation with your partner with the best of intentions–remaining calm and respectful in an attempt to collaboratively resolve your concerns. Yet before you know what hit you, your partner has become defensive, putting up a metaphorical brick wall that all of your complaints bounce back from. When your partner takes a defensive stance, s/he is not taking responsibility for the role that s/he played in a given scenario.
To prevent a continuous cycle of attack and defensive, here are some helpful pointers:
- Use “I feel” Statements. Using “I” statements places the emphasis on yourself instead of your partner. In doing so, you are acknowledging your role in the given scenario and accessing vulnerability in place of anger. For example “I feel hurt when you look at your phone while we’re talking” is more effective than “You’re always looking at your phone and ignoring me.” Understandably, the second statement is more likely to cause a defensive response from your partner.
- Avoid sweeping statements and characters generalizations. In the second statement in the example above, the word always is a sweeping generalization made about the partner’s phone use. These statements are untrue (surely there are times when the phone is not in use!) and will be perceived as criticism, immediately prompting a defensive response.
- Take responsibility for your role in events. Interpersonal conflict doesn’t happen inside a vacuum; you make a contribution to every discussion and argument that you have with your partner. By taking responsibility for your role, you are setting the tone of the conversation and modeling respectful communication. “I recognize that sometimes I catch you off guard while you are answering emails on your phone” is an example of how the partner in this scenario may take responsibility for their role in the dynamic.
While these tactics do not guarantee that your partner will not become defensive, practicing these healthy communicating skills will increase the chances of eliciting a different response from your partner.
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Written by Joanna Aslanian, LPC, ATR-P