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Defensive Language Exposes You


Conscious Communication: bringing communication up from "auto-pilot" and reactive, to thoughtful, responsive, and above all, intentional.

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Defensive Language Exposes You -

podcast version


What Are You Talking About, Ian?

Defensive language has less to do with the specific words, and more to do with our frameworks for perceiving threats.  This changes considerably from person to person, and event to event, so what can we take from this that would be useful?  Where’s the lesson? 


There are several things we can count on, when it comes to defensive language.  First, we develop our defensive linguistic apparatus when we’re very young.  We’ll save the exploration into Object Relations Theory for now, but generally we develop our linguistic defense style by the time we’re about five years old, and then just improve our vocabulary.  This means that when we become defensive, we tend to regress, and sometimes pretty drastically.  This is not a resourceful state from which to operate.  You never want to use “I know you are, but what am I?!” with your boss or spouse.


Next, it indicates the perception of a threat.  What’s incredibly important is that word perception; regardless of the existence of a threat.  Once that trigger is pulled, things can either continue and escalate from there, or recognition of the trigger being pulled can instigate a conscious process of de-fusing the scenario.


Recognition of the warning signs, and implementing a pattern interrupt can potentially head off the battle, before it becomes one.  This can be an incredible time and energy saver, not to mention reducing the level of stress and conflict in your life.


Another reason to control this dynamic is that it accomplishes exactly the opposite effect of what it’s trying to do.  Rather than protect you, it informs the other person that you are perceiving a threat.  In cards, that’s called showing them your hand, and there are very few negotiations in business where this is a winning move.  Even if you are perceiving a threat, letting the other person know this will rarely help you, and usually facilitates things getting worse.



Is The Best Defense a Good Offense?

A popular linguistic defense is taking the flip side of what someone says and making whatever they say into an attacking statement, so being defensive will make sense.  This is the: “you look great today”  “oh, so I look awful the rest of the time?!” defense.  It comes across as extremely offense/attack minded, and is designed to put the other person on the defense.  Again, this is presupposing a conflict that never had to happen in the first place, but now is assured. 


There is no upside to this; no facilitation of communication, no dialogue, no exchange of real or useful information.  Core mistake: there is an assumption that the person is going to attack.  This assumption stands in the place of real information to the degree that even when something nice is said, it doesn’t get heard or processed.  Reality has to be dismissed, and the perceived threat, which is not real, gets all the attention.



The Most Common Defense: The Preemptive Strike

We’ve all experienced this, and most of us from both sides of the equation.  “I’ll quit you before you quit me.”  “I’ll tell you I don’t like it before you say you don’t like it.”  “I’ll say it’s not important to me before you say it’s not important to you.”  If actually saying the words aloud makes it sound juvenile, remember what I said about regressing.


The Preemptive Strike is based on throwing your “opponent” off, by getting ahead of them in the chronology of the battle.  If you can bomb their planes before they take off, you’ll be ahead in the “game.”  This presupposes of course that they were going to use those planes to attack you, and not to bring food, medical supplies or economic trade, or maybe just to visit.  Oops; there goes that productive alliance.


There are many versions of a great old joke that illustrates the preemptive strike defense and its ridiculousness when seen in the cool light of reality.  I’ll call it the “Neighbor and his Lawnmower:”

A man needed to cut his lawn, but his lawnmower wasn't working.  He decided to go next door to ask if he could borrow his neighbor's lawnmower.  As he walked over, he thought about all the favors he'd done for his neighbor over the years, and went over all the "what if he doesn't lend it to me?" scenarios in his head. This started to get him angry.  By the time he got to his neighbor's front steps, he'd convinced himself the neighbor wouldn't lend him the lawnmower - despite all the favors he'd done for him over the years!  By the time he rang the doorbell, he'd worked himself up to a full boil.  When his neighbor answered the door, he shouted, “You can shove your lawnmower for all I care!" and stomped away in a huff.  His neighbor just stood there, confused.

How often do we find ourselves on one side or the other of this joke?  The problem is, it’s not funny in real life.  The lawn still doesn’t get mowed, and the friendship is damaged as well.  Defending himself from the possible “shame/hurt/embarrassment” in the projected scenario, he ensured a no-win scenario.


This all comes back to the perception of a threat.  If we are obsessively attached to a fragile identity that we’ve created, we get nervous when anyone even gets close.  They might hurt or break it.  This thinking is "leftovers" from childhood, and we actually have the resources to grow beyond this level of vulnerability.  We can embody the old “sticks and stones” rhyme, and walk courageously into dialogue.  Real dialogue won’t hurt us.


The next time you feel triggered into defensive language, or recognize someone else doing it with you, take a moment to catch your breath and interrupt the pattern.  The productive conversation will really be about why either of you is feeling a threat, and how can that be addressed and dealt with in a constructive and adult manner.  This strategy would be called applying Conscious Communication.





Quick Communication Tip


Prepping the Surface

When painting, the more we prep the surface, the better our finished product.  This takes a little extra time in the beginning, but serves us well into the future with more long-lasting and better looking results.


In de-fusing a situation that is headed into a defensive, non-productive area, questions can feel less attacking than statements.  These questions must be more designed to prep the surface than to probe it.  Probing can be interpreted as attacking as well, so we need to be cautious here.  Asking “what the heck is wrong with you?” is not likely to disperse a forming conflict.  Asking “is something here bothering you?” is much more likely to place you on the same side as the other person, building rapport and “team” dynamics.  


When you perceive an attack, ask the other person for clarification in the most innocuous and genuinely interested manner.  You might find out that there is no attack.  You might get clarification on why they feel the need to attack you.  Either way, you learn more about what’s in their hand than they learn about yours.  That’s how you play to win.


Want to learn more about how your communication can hold you back or catapult you forward?  Come visit the web site, or better yet, contact me and see how we can design a program to fit your needs and desired outcomes.





Resource Links:


Conscious Communication - the podcast series

Personal Life Media - "Coaching the Life Coach:"

Communication Excellence (Podcast Snippets)

Communication Excellence (full interview)

Interview for Entrepreneur Magazine Radio w/ Romanus Wolter

Interview Podcast for Evolutionary Radio w/ Jason McClain

Kind Ambition - 2nd Edition now available

Got Blog? come visit the Blog.

Character Driven - Ever want to create characters that were so believable, that people forgot they were characters?



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