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How to Combat Defensiveness

Dear CMR:

How do you receive criticism in a productive way without becoming defensive or taking it personally?

Signed, A Reluctant Wife

Dear Reluctant Wife,

That’s such a great question because it’s a common issue with which we all struggle!

Leading marital researcher Dr. John Gottman, refers to defensiveness as one of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These Four Horsemen are common ways of interacting with others that are toxic to a relationship. So it’s commendable that you’ve recognized this in yourself and are willing to take steps to grow personally in this area.

For those that may not know, defensiveness is a form of self-protection through righteous indignation or being the victim. During a conflict, many people attempt to protect themselves by become defensive if they feel like they are being criticized or attacked. But it’s really a way of casting the blame on your partner, saying in effect, “The problem is you, not me.”

For example, let’s say you are criticized for forgetting to do something. When asked about it, a defensive response might be, ”I was too busy today. You know how busy my day was. You should have reminded me.” This turns the tables and makes it the other person’s fault.

A productive, healthier way to counter defensiveness is to be willing to accept responsibility – even if only for part of the conflict. Doing this makes it easier for the other person to be able to assume their responsibility as well, and as a result conflict resolution is possible. For instance, a non-defensive response would be, “You’re right. I did say I would do that. I should have asked you to do it because I knew my day would be busy. I’ll go take care of it right now.” This type of response will make it easier for the initial person to soften and not be so critical. They might even offer to help! 

Something else that is helpful when you are being criticized is to describe to the other person how the criticism is impacting you and how it would be easier to hear their concern with a few simple changes. For example, you could say something like, “I understand that you are upset, and I know that there are some things that I can do differently. I want to understand your concern and work with you on things. It’s just that it’s hard for me to take in what you are saying when I hear a criticism of me rather than a complaint about the situation. If you could share with me your complaint about the situation and what you would like to see changed, it would be easier for me to hear and respond to what you are saying.” That type of response paves the way for dialogue and collaboration rather than conflict. It is helpful to both parties.

Responding to criticism can be tough. But when we can accept a legitimate part of the responsibility and ask for a complaint rather than a criticism, we pave the way for greater understanding and resolution.