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Dialling down the defensiveness

The relationship gurus John & Julia Gottmann talk about the importance of the skill of ‘non- defensive listening’ in a relationship. On sharing some of their thoughts with my partner, Tracey, she reflected that I actually seem to have mastered the opposing skill of ‘defensive non-listening’! Now she is right, my natural instinct, when faced with conflict is to dig in and sometimes counter attack! Harriet Lerner explains why so many of us respond to our partners defensively:

There is no greater challenge than that of listening without defensiveness, especially when we don’t want to hear what the other person is telling us…. It’s impossible to overstate how difficult it is to shift out of defensive mode. When someone approaches us in an angry or critical way, our automatic set point is listening for what we don’t agree with. It’s so automatic that it takes motivation, courage, and good will to observe our defensiveness and practice stepping away from it”

The Gottmans consider ‘defensiveness’ to be such a critical issue in relationships that they refer to it as one of the ‘4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. These are the four patterns of communication that they argue are likely to lead to the destruction of your relationship. We have referred to them a number of times in our blogs, but you can get a quick recap here 


If on the one hand our defensiveness is automatic or impulsive, as Lerner outlines; but yet at the same time so dangerous to our relationship, as the Gottman’s research has discovered; how then can we learn to respond differently? In her book ‘How not to Apologise’ Harriet Lerner provides a comprehensive and practical checklist on how to learn to listen non-defensively. It is something that she argues is the first step to a sincere apology.

Recognise your defensiveness – this can give us a tiny, crucial bit of distance from it. Try to catch yourself when you are focusing on the inaccuracies, distortions and exaggerations that will inevitably be there – rather than on the substance of what your partner is saying.

Breath – Defensiveness impacts the bodymaking us tense and on guard (it is effectively the fight or flight response!). Do whatever you can to calm yourself,  especially focusing on slow and deep breaths.

Listen to understand – listen to discover what you can agree with. Do not interrupt, argue, refute, or correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms and complaints. If your points are legitimate, that’s all the more reason to save them for a different conversation, when they can be the focus of the conversation and not a defense strategy!

Ask questions about whatever you don’t understandsuch as asking for concrete examples (this is not the same as nit-picking). The key is to be curious rather than cross –examining!

Find something you can agree with – You may only agree with 7 percent of what your partner is saying, but can still find a point of commonality.

Apologise for your part this will show that you are taking responsibility and will hopefully shift the exchange out of combat into collaboration. Save your thoughts about their part until later!

Let your partner know that they have been heard –  commit to continuing to think about the conversation, even if nothing is resolved at that point.

Thank your partner for sharing their feelings – express gratitude where they might be expecting defensiveness. Also keep the door open for them to continue to share – “I hope that you will let me know as more comes up for you over time”.

Take the initiative to bring the conversation up again – even if it is asking more or checking in to show that you are thinking about it.

Offer the possibility of another conversation – If your partner crosses the line with rudeness / insults / a barrage then offer the chance to re-start the conversation at a later point.

Don’t listen when you can’t listen well (e.g. tiredness or short on time) – You can tell your partner that you recognise that it is important but you are not able to give it the attention that it needs right now but agree a specific time to return to it and then stick to that time.

There are certain things that are best saved for another conversation. For example Lerner argues that it is important not to simply passively accept criticisms that we believe are wrong. She argues that it is important to define your differences and not simply apologise in order to avoid conflict. Crucially see argues that in the moment it is best to own as much as you can and to save the rest for a later conversation! Your story is important too but it is important not to hijack your partner’s story.

OK so the challenge for me in order to shift out of my ‘defensive non listening’ instincts are to recognise it; breath; listen in order to agree; apologise; demonstrate that I have heard; be grateful; take initiative for the conversation and return to it when necessary. Easy! 🙂 Maybe there is a reason why Lerner says that it takes “motivation, courage and good will”.

Questions / Actions

  • When do you find yourself responding defensively to your partner?
  • Which of the 12 strategies do you think that you most readily use when in conflict with your partner?
  • Which of them do you least readily use and what do you think will be your challenges in trying to use them?
  • Next time your partner challenges you on something try out some new strategies and see how it plays out!

Richard Elliott

Father, husband, teacher, coach, Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and the co-founder of the the Pickwell Foundation - a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a diploma in Business, Executive and Life Coaching and a background in post 16 education, in which he taught and managed Social Science subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.

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