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What sets you off? How to recognize your identity pinpoints that cause you to get defensive?

Posted on Jul 24 2015 under Blog Posts

WhoAmIThe book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Shelia Heen is one of my favorites. I just re-read the chapter where the authors speak of identity, and they cite three identities that a person worries about in a tough conversation, “Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love?” Each question can provoke defensiveness that can instigate conflict.

These three points affect how you and I see ourselves as a people. I will admit if I am in a disagreement and I feel my intelligence, my feelings towards someone or something, or my choices and beliefs are in question, I feel a need to get defensive. I had an epiphany when I first started learning about conflict, and I realized most of the arguments I had with others escalated because of personal identity battles with which I was struggling.

My second-grade teacher called me stupid in front of my class and unfortunately, it was not a onetime occurrence. I spent most of my life believing I was stupid and using this experience as a crutch. I reflected on this experience, and I determined that I gave my second-grade teacher’s comment power by believing it and therefore, I did myself a disservice because I could have achieved a lot more. I began noticing that every time someone called something I said into question, I felt like they were inquiring my competency, and I would get defensive.

When you get defensive what happens?

  1. You stop listening. The moment you feel defensive you automatically jump into fight mode, thinking of your next comeback.
  2. You may say things you do not mean, make accusations, and draw conclusions about something that was not mentioned. I call this the groundhog effect. When Groundhogs feel trapped, they attack. Humans do the same thing in an argument when you feel stuck you get defensive, and you attack.
  3. You make a resolution more difficult. If you get defensive you stop listening, then the person you are disputing with does not feel heard or acknowledged. If you attack, say things you don’t mean, make accusations, or draw conclusions about the unsaid, you then have to work through the hurt feelings that arose between you and the other person.

Identity is something humans hold dear. Defensiveness occurs when we see ourselves a certain way, and it is called into question or criticized. There are some cases that call for defensiveness when people are outwardly mean and deliberately trying to hurt your feelings. I am not discussing these particular incidents; I am referring to our sensitive hot spots that provoke defensiveness when it is not necessary.

When someone critiques or questions something I say, I actively try to stop my conscience from thinking they are calling me incompetent. I also do the following things:

  1. Listen and hear out what the person is saying. In the past I would hear a critique and stop listening. Now I listen to the whole statement before I react.
  2. Recognize that what you hear i.e. tones, sarcasm, etc. may not be intentional, therefore you must also clarify. I have said to my fiancé on numerous occasions, “When you said [fill in the blank] did you mean it sarcastically?” Most of the time, what I am hearing is not what he intended, or he will admit frustration with something else and that is why he had a tone or was sarcastic.
  3. Acknowledge what provokes you to get defensive. You are the only person that can know your triggers and therefore, when pushed you are responsible for how those situations are handled.
  4. Learn to take constructive criticism. If you want to get better in life, you must be able to take criticism because that is the only way to get better. Recognize not everyone is out to get you and most want to see you succeed.

I challenge each person to look inward and find out what identity pinpoints provokes defensiveness; awareness is the first step towards constructive change.

Abigail Clark M.S Negotiation and Conflict Management

Apprentice

 


4 Replies to “What sets you off? How to recognize your identity pinpoints that cause you to get defensive?”

  1. Thanks Abigail. Helpful and will done article. It really is fascinating how people can be their own worst critic, yet when criticized by someone else, most of us become hurt and then defensive. As a coach, try to remember to ask about my clients about their level of comfort with receiving feedback and also at times to ask permission to give feedback.
    I really appreciate you pulling so many aspects of this topic together in one article !

  2. Abigail~
    Understanding and managing defensiveness is such an important issue to explore so I’m grateful for your blog post. I appreciate the second suggestion about recognizing the speaker’s tone of voice or sarcasm and clarifying the speaker’s intention rather than assuming an interpretation.
    I have found personally and when working with couples that the “tones, sarcasm or even laughter” gives insight into the speaker’s defenses or “anxieties” about the subject or the tension around exploring it with someone who matters.
    Adopting an approach for learning about self and the other is powerful when coupled with skills of self awareness (triggers) and tolerating the discomfort while listening to understand the speaker’s reality.
    Thanks for a thoughtful read and good luck as you advance toward your future career and marriage 🙂

  3. Abigail Clark said on August 2nd, 2015 at 2:51 PM

    Laurie,

    Thank you so much for the feedback! I agree with your method of asking clients about their level of comfort with receiving feedback. I have been in several group situations where levels of comfort with giving and receiving feedback have not been disclosed and people have had their feelings hurt. Asking ahead of time, I definitely agree is a good practice! Thank you again!

  4. Abigail Clark said on August 2nd, 2015 at 2:53 PM

    Mary,

    Thank you so much for the feedback! Clarifying is so important! I can imagine especially with couples who are having issues, defenses and anxieties are high. Clarifying and exploring these triggers like you pointed out could be beneficial! Thank you again!

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