A skill that will help you evaluate almost any relationship issue it to learn how to have a conversation without defensiveness. I often hear from my clients that it is very difficult to not take things personally. It is natural for us to think that everything another person says has to do with us but, in reality, what other people tell us is simply their perception.
Take for example a couple where one person says to the other that he can’t stand the way the other person treats him. Let’s examine the statement in a brand new way. The natural inclination for many people is to get upset and feel threatened or hurt. Try these ideas next time someone says something that you normally would fight back about or that gets you defensive:
1. Examine the statement only as words. In this case the person said they can’t stand the way we treat them. Look at this as simply a statement by the other person that reflects how they think. Take yourself out of the picture by making the statement about them and not you. In this way, you have just created an opportunity to take what the other person has said and learn something about how they think.
2. Think of the statement as window into the other person’s thoughts and take the opportunity to learn about the other person. After all, they’re only telling you about their perception.
3. Ask open ended questions to gather more information. For example: What are the reasons you think that? Gather information only. Don’t judge, don’t get upset and don’t fight. Ask open ended questions until the tone of the conversation changes from tension to calm.
4. Listen, listen, listen. Try not to comment, rebut, challenge or change the other person’s point of view no matter how much you disagree. Don’t interrupt. Hang in there until the conversation goes from being confrontational to calming down. You will know when you have listened enough because the other person will be calmer.
5. When the other person is finished, repeat what they have said. Thank them for the information and tell them you will consider it. You don’t need to do anything else at this point.
What you have just done is given the other person the chance to tell you about themselves. You have also shown them what it is like to be listened to in a relationship and to have your point of view accepted for what it is: your point of view. This sets up a very important dynamic because it introduces the possibility that both people can actually express themselves without always getting mad.
Try this approach the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone is telling you something that sets you off. If you practice this approach, the other person will notice that you are giving them the chance to speak and will be more likely to do the same for you.
Even if the other person is saying things to try to upset you, if you use this approach, you will be able to get information directly from the other person to clarify what’s going on. Often people say things they don’t mean because they don’t feel heard or don’t think it will matter to the other person. I hope you will use this approach to help defuse the amount of defensiveness in your relationship.