| Family Reflections |

Don’t Be So Defensive

Accusing others of being defensive never ends well


Dassy and Bailey were arguing. The adult sisters had different recollections of the event.

Dassy: “You told me you’d call me by three. I waited and waited, and by the time I left it was already too late...”

Bailey: “That just isn’t true — I didn’t even know when I’d be finished, so it makes no sense...”

Dassy: “It’s exactly what happened. Why else would I have waited for your call?”

Bailey: “All I know is that I would never have said such a thing. How could I commit to calling you at three when I might not have been ready before four?”

Dassy: “You’re being defensive.”

Bailey: “I’m not being defensive! I’m just telling you that it didn’t happen that way!”


Ephraim and Naomi were also having a dispute.

Ephraim: “You really shouldn’t yell at the kids. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Naomi: “I don’t believe I yelled. And I think that the children knew exactly what they were doing.”

Ephraim: “Stop being so defensive. I can never tell you anything!”

Naomi: “I’m not being defensive! I’m disagreeing with you. Since I told the kids five minutes earlier not to jump on the furniture, they knew what they were doing was wrong.”


Resorting to Insults

Good communication fosters peaceful, friendly, and loving relationships. Poor communication erodes them. One way to quickly and powerfully do damage is to employ the use of insults.

Many people resort to name-calling when they feel threatened or shamed, to the extent that their “fight-or-flight” mechanisms set in. “You’re a liar!” and similar declarations immediately hit the target, provoking equally immediate, reflexive, and impulsive counterattacks (“And you’re a...”) and/or defenses, (“How dare you say such a thing!”). These are the words that fights are made of.

There are also more refined words that can be used to attack one’s opponent. Instead of employing low-level insults, the more sophisticated attacker can draw upon “stealth name-calling.” This strategy involves attributing motives to the speaker. “You’re being defensive” sounds like feedback from one’s psychoanalyst. It replaces the crasser, but far more honest, “I’ve just told you the true facts of the matter, and you’re making things up.” The speaker assumes that his or her own take of the situation is reality and that any contradiction (i.e., “That’s not what happened...”) is a manipulative maneuver designed for self-protection.

Ironically, saying “you’re being defensive” usually causes tremendous defensiveness. “I’m not being defensive! I’m just trying to tell you that what happened was...” In our example, Bailey started off quietly explaining her point of view: “How could I commit to calling at three because...,” etc. However, once Dassy accused her of being defensive, Bailey felt discounted and insulted. She felt that she wasn’t being given a fair chance to share her perspective. And in fact, one who uses the phrase, “you’re being defensive,” is trying to silence the perspective of the other person.


Different Perspectives

Listening to someone express a view that we disagree with is hard. We might be certain that events unfolded the way we experienced them. When someone denies our reality, we can feel threatened. Dassy was sure that Bailey was supposed to call at three, and she acted accordingly. As soon as Bailey shares her own version of reality, Dassy feels like Bailey is making things up in order to avoid taking responsibility.

Sometimes we feel like Dassy, and sometimes we feel like Bailey in our own conversations. We feel like we’re being manipulated by someone who we are trying to hold accountable. Or we feel like we’re not being allowed to tell the story the way we perceived it.

A bit of humility can help us all. We need to keep in mind that other people really do see and experience things differently. And we always need to consider the possibility that we may be the ones in error.

If Ephraim had some of that humility, he could have replaced his “Stop being so defensive...” with something like, “Well I guess we have different perspectives on what yelling is. It’s true you weren’t loud so I understand why you think you weren’t yelling, but your voice was very stern. And I’m also confused: What makes you so sure that the kids knew what they were doing?” Authentic, interested, mutually respectful conversation always works best.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 807)

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