Handling Defensiveness

We have learned that assertive communication is a clear, firm, and respectful way to voice your feelings and perspectives. While assertive communication is the best way to communicate during conflict, it is still often met with defensiveness. Often people do not wish to accept your concerns or needs and instead defend their actions. This is a completely normal response, so as assertive communicators, we must be equipped to handle defensiveness. We’ve already learned some skills for communicating assertively, but let’s look a little closer at how assertive communicators can combat defensiveness:

Preparation

There are few ways one can prepare in order to make their assertion successful:

Preparing the assertion. Formulate your thoughts ahead of time, rather than coming up with what you want to say on the spot. By doing so, you can work to create a message that you feel is appropriate and clearly expresses your feelings and needs. To check the appropriateness of your assertion, ask yourself whether the issue is persistent and requires a conversation.

Rehearse your assertion. You can rehearse out loud. You may do so by yourself or you may want to ask another person to stand in and help you rehearse. Rehearsal can help in a few ways. Often times things sound different in our head than when we say them out loud. By hearing your message, you can pick up on what sounds appropriate, what you left out, and what you may want to change. Secondly, rehearsing with someone else can allow you to practice responding to defenses. Ask the other person to react to your assertion with multiple types of defensive responses.  This will help you feel prepared to respond to any reaction you may receive.

Set up a time to talk. Schedule a time to talk. Remember what we learned about introducing a conversation and asking for consent. By gaining consent, the other person is more engaged in the conversation. This will make it less likely for the other person to make an excuse and walk away.

Sending the Message

Body language is also important when making assertions. You want to use your body language to show the other person that you are serious and you expect them to listen to your needs. Here are a few ways to do so:

Posture: Face the other person squarely. Sit up straight with your head upright and place your feet firmly on the ground. This posture displays energy and shows the other person that you are serious. Remember to avoid crossing of the arms and legs, as this can come off as defensive and angry.

Eye contact: Keeping eye contact shows the other person that you mean what you say. Do not stare aggressively: Instead, look into the other person’s eyes, occasionally glancing away. This indicates seriousness without aggression.

Facial expression:  You want to have a facial expression that matches your message. Some people smile or laugh nervously when addressing an issue. However, this sends mixed messages. Try to control these habits. Conversely, you do not want to wear a facial expression that conveys anger by furrowing your brow or pursing your lips. Instead, try to have a calm but serious expression. Rehearsing in front of a mirror may help you to control your expression.

Voice: Speaking too loudly can indicate anger while speaking too softly may not be taken seriously. Give your assertion in a calm but firm voice. This will grab the person’s attention without upsetting them.

After Sending the Assertion

Be Silent. After delivering your message, allow a few moments of silence. This gives the other person an opportunity to take in what you have said and respond. Remember, demanding or ordering are not appropriate ways to solve issues and met your needs. Assertive communication involves respectfully stating your feelings and needs as well as being open to a conversation about it. Therefore, it is important to listen to the other person’s concerns or feelings on the issue. Often their response will be defensive. This is normal. Sometimes people feel the need to defend themselves before they are willing to listen and understand the other person’s needs. Expect this and allow it to happen.

Use Reflective Listening.  After making your assertion, switch roles and become a reflective listener. This can be difficult, as some times a person’s defense includes insults, hostility, or other actions that we wish to react to. However, matching a person’s defensive attitude will only escalate the conflict. By responding to defensiveness with attentiveness and respect, the defensiveness tends to subside. Reflective listening will also clue you into the needs of the other person and how you can find a solution that meets both your needs.

Repeat. If the other person’s defensiveness does not diminish, you may need to repeat your assertion. After repeating, resume your reflective listening. It may take several rounds of this process until the person understands your needs and is willing to work on finding a solution. Remember, in preparation of your assertion you determined it was appropriate and necessary. Therefore, it is important to remain persistent. Do not give in to their defenses or give up. Conversely, do not become pushy or aggressive. Remember that assertive communication is respectful.

What to Expect

Now we know that when we are faced with a defensive response, we should use reflective listening and reassert our message. Let’s take a look at some common defensive responses, so we can better know what to expect:

Hostile responses: Some people take assertions to be an attack and respond with a counterattack. These responses are designed to upset you and make you back down. These can be upsetting and you may feel inclined to attack back. However, remember that matching a person’s hostility will make the problem worse. Work on remaining calm and practicing your reflective listening.

Questioning: A person may respond to an assertion with questions. This causes the conversation to lose its focus and can turn into a game of question and answer. So, as tempting as it may be, do not answer the questions. Rather, turn them into an opportunity for reflective listening. For example:

Cory:  “Why can’t I just wait to clean up after my TV show is over?”

Carrie: “Your TV show is important to you.”

You may be wondering what the harm is in answering a question. If you feel that additional information is in fact needed, you should provide the information clearly and concisely and resume your reflective listening and reassertion. However, keep in mind that sometimes people will respond with a question, not because they are confused or need clarification, but rather as a way to avoid dealing with the issue.

Debating: Debating is a common defense in which a person attempts to prove your feelings, needs, or concerns are incorrect or unnecessary. By debating, the person is trying to appear objective and logical. However, they are really dismissing your concerns. In debates, the conversation becomes sidetracked from your assertion and in the end, there is always a winner and a loser. Instead of battling it out on who is correct, it would be better to agree on a solution that meets both persons’ needs. We will discuss this more later on in this course.

Withdrawal: After an assertion, we know to remain silent to give the other person a moment to reflect and respond. However, sometimes the person may sit in silence, never responding. This often signals that the person feels threatened or uncomfortable. Without a response, a solution cannot be agreed upon. Therefore, if you feel that you have given an appropriate amount of silence without response, restate your assertion. If the person remains unresponsive, you may want to say something to the effect of, “I take your silence to mean that you don’t wish to talk about it but are willing to meet my needs.” If your needs are not met, you may want to try your assertion again at another time.

In this lesson we have learned more about how to use assertive communication and how to deal with defensive reactions. Remember, whether a person is hostile, uses questions, tries to engage in a debate, or withdrawals, you should respond the same way: Make your assertion, wait in silence, use your reflective listening skills, and restate your assertion. This will keep your conversation on track and deescalate any defensiveness. It may take several rounds of assertion and reflective listening before the other person is ready to listen and understand your concerns and talk about finding a solution. In the next lesson, we will learn how to work together to find solutions to conflicts that meets everyone’s needs.

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