How to Handle People Who Easily Become Defensive

I had a great realization when going through Dr. Julie Helmrich’s Science of Conflict course recently. One idea from that course helped me make sense of an issue that had been popping up now and then in my relationships.

She noted that a key reason that people become defensive during conflict is that their inner critic gets triggered. They’ve already gone through many rounds of internal conversation with this inner critic. So when a problem or issue is raised as if it’s new, it’s really not new. The other person is probably well aware of it. They’ve already beat themselves up for it many times before.

Consequently, when you step into a role that resembles their inner critic, this automatically activates the part of them that must push back against that inner critic. They’re really not in conscious control of this. It just happens. They may even catch themselves doing this, dislike it very much, and still feel powerless to stop it.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve triggered a person’s defensiveness, and then my response is something like this:

One time, can we just skip past this whole defensiveness thing? It’s such a waste of time and energy. Why don’t we save ourselves a few hours and just skip ahead to solving the actual problem here? You’re not being attacked. I’m not blaming you for anything, so please lower your shields because this isn’t an assault. I just want a solution to this problem, and I could really use your help with that.

Does that ever work? Ha… I wish!

And oh is it so annoying when I just want to get a simple problem solved, and the other person is taking it personally and reacting like a 5-year old caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

Some of these problems could be solved in 5-10 minutes if just a little rational thought and mutual understanding were applied. But if the person’s shields go up, it will take hours, maybe days, if a solution is created at all.

When the person’s shields go up, internally I’m saying to myself:

This is ridiculous. We could be done in a few minutes if s/he would just chill out for long enough to help me solve this. Is a solution really worth this emotional effort? I might as well drop it and find a way to solve this problem on my own… maybe there’s a way to do that. Or I could just ignore the problem for now and try again later.

The Science of Conflict course led me to a different way of framing these situations. Instead of trying to tiptoe around someone’s defensiveness and being annoyed as hell when they began to defend against an imaginary attack, now my attitude is more like Frank Costanza from Seinfeld yelling back:

Oh you want a piece of me?

Trying to avoid the conflict doesn’t work. Oddly it’s better to embrace it. Know there will be a fight, not with the other person but with their inner critic. In a way, I must play the role of the inner critic, so the person can fight back hard against that part of themselves.

If they’re gonna raise their shields no matter what I do, let’s give them good cause to raise them. They expect an attack? Fine… I’ll give them one.

The fight isn’t actually a problem. Just as I was busy thinking that the other person was raising their shields unnecessarily, so was I. I didn’t want to get into an emotional argument, so I pre-shielded myself against that. Their shields were in part a reaction to my own.

It’s very different when you come in with phasers full charged, expecting and even welcoming a fight. Being prepared for a fight is better than wanting to avoid a fight at all costs.

This reminds me of when I trained in martial arts. Practicing self-defense skills with other people made me feel more physically confident and more internally ready for a fight. I’d be walking down the street, almost wanting someone to try to attack me just so I could fight back. I shared this with the other students, and some of them noticed this shift in themselves as well. They also felt that it was less likely for them to get into a fight because they didn’t exude a victim mindset. People are less likely to attack you when your attitude is “I dare you to attack me.”

That may not be quite the attitude that the original course intended, but I do find this framing helpful. If we’re afraid of a fight and would so love to avoid it, we invite the person’s defensiveness to take control and derail the discussion.

The thing is… the other person’s defensiveness never really scared me. I found that aspect of people more annoying than threatening. I found the emotional arguments boring and time-wasting. I felt impatient for faster solutions.

Which is faster though? To ignore someone who keeps trying to bait you into a fight while you’re trying to focus on solving a problem? Or to give your full attention to that annoyance and beat the crap out of it till it surrenders?

Maybe it seems better to avoid a fight. But you could just fight and get it over with. Fight hard. Fight well. Fight honorably. Fight creatively. Fight playfully. Fight till the fighting part is done. Then go into solution mode.

Fights that don’t finish can go on forever. So be willing to fight till the fighting is finished.

I thought that fighting back would be doing people a disservice, but I’m not fighting against them. I’m fighting for a win-win solution.

The other person would like a solution too, and maybe a good pathway to get there is to help them shut down their inner critic, partly by inviting it to spar a few rounds. Then that critic will naturally recede, and we can solve the actual problem.

Martial arts reminds me that fighting can be a lot of fun if you embrace it. It’s especially fun to spar when both people are in the mood for it. There’s something very cleansing about the experience. It moves energy through the body. But if you resist the experience, that energy gets stuck.

This course also pointed out how utterly common it is to activate someone’s defensive response. I always saw this type of conflict as something to be avoided, like I should always do my best to avoid making someone feel defensive. But this only limited my ability to solve problems. Going through that conflict phase is necessary and important.

I can think of some big problems in my past that I punted forward for months or years because I was unwilling to deal with emotional conflict with another person. It was amazing how quickly those got resolved when I finally got sucked into the conflict, which wasn’t necessarily by choice. Getting that stuck energy moving again was such a huge relief.

Like many things in life, when you finally surrender to the inevitable and embrace it, it’s much easier to handle. This attitude of accepting conflict makes it less likely to trigger someone’s defensiveness and less likely to have to invest a lot of time dealing with that defensiveness.

Where in your life are you avoiding conflict because you know it will trigger the other person’s defensiveness? How’s that approach working for you?

Why not try doing the opposite? The path to resolution is through the fire of conflict. The potential for conflict isn’t a threat. It’s an invitation for you to grow stronger. Be a person who will fight for solutions and not settle for non-solutions, and you won’t have to live so much of your life in a cage that’s too small for you.

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