Feeling Attacked in Conversation

Empathy Growth mindset Respect


Key Point: Early in my career and marriage I was a defensive expert whenever I felt challenged in a conversation. I still need to be wary of falling into this trap. I wasn’t fully aware of this behavior except retrospectively, when I tried to figure out what went wrong and why the conversation became an argument. I hadn’t really learned tools to both observe and control slipping into defensiveness. However, learning how to be non-defensive during conversations is a great life skill. And most of us learn how to effectively navigate through this feeling of being attacked or challenged through a long period of trial and error. Hopefully this blog will give you some insight and tools to deftly move conversations forward without being sidetracked by being defensive.

First of all, we need to be aware why and when we become defensive and the relationship damage it causes. When we are defensive, we usually stop listening and spend more energy defending and perhaps even retaliating. It slows us down from attending to the issue we are addressing through dialogue. And when we realize we are behaving defensively we can even get defensive about being defensive. This usually triggers the same response in the other person.

I recently read “Don’t Get Defensive: Communication Tips for the Vigilant” by Dr. Mark Goulston, and I wanted to share it with all my readers. It is excellent advice and ideally you will add the techniques cited below into your effective conversation tool-kit. I’ve added exerts into my Character Moves below.

Character Moves:

  1. Learn the “three strikes and you’re in” technique. After someone has said something that causes you to arch your back and want to become defensive: Strike One – Think of the first thing you want to say or do and don’t do that. Instead, take a deep breath. That is because the first thing you want to do is defend yourself against what you perceive as an attack, slight, or offense. Strike Two – Think of the second thing you want to say or do and don’t do that, either. Take a second breath. That is because the second thing you want to do after being attacked is to retaliate. That is only going to escalate matters. Strike Three – Think of the third thing you want to say or do and then do that. That is because once you get past defending yourself and retaliating, you have a better chance of seeking a solution.
  2. Learn how to become a “Plusser.” A plusser is someone who listens to what the other person says and then builds on it. One way of plussing is to use the phrase, “Say more about ______.” Think of the words they used that had the most emphasis and invite them to say more about that topic. You will buy yourself time to think and calm down, let your counterpart feel heard, and disarm a counterpart who has bad intentions. Another way to do it is to say, “If we do that, what would be the next step to keep it going?” or “If we do this, what would be the way to get the most out of it?”
  3. Learn to replace “yes but” with ” yes and.” As you probably know, when you say, “yes, but” they hear, “everything up to now was just being polite and should be disregarded; now I’m going to tell you what the real deal is and you better pay attention.” (Isn’t it amazing how “yes, but” can mean so much more?). “Yes, and” validates what has been said — and adds to it. For example, “Yes, that’s a good point and to make it work even better…” or “Yes, I heard everything you said and help me figure out the way to make sure it gets incorporated…” If you often find yourself in defensive conversations where you can’t figure out why you’re arguing — if you find yourself frequently saying, “Hey, I think we actually agree here…” — you might be guilty of saying “yes, but” when you actually mean “yes, and.”

Non-defensive in The Triangle