Learning to Listen Without Getting Defensive

Have you ever had a conversation and felt like the other person was not really listening to you? Maybe you have even witnessed a conversation and thought to yourself, Hmm… that person is not listening but just waiting until their chance to respond. Chances are, if someone was critiquing every thing you said instead of making you feel truly heard and understood, your first response might be defensiveness.

We all have flawed personality traits — things that we are not the most proud of that perhaps affect how we connect or act with other people. Over the last three or four years, I have become more aware that one of my weaknesses is defensiveness.

Relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman takes the metaphor of the Four Horsemen to outline four types of communication styles that can forecast the demise of a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. The third in the list, defensiveness, is usually a way to counter criticisms from another individual. It instantly shifts us to an impulsive and reactive mode, but we might not always pick up on it in that moment.

How exactly do we authentically listen without allowing defensiveness to take the lead? It may be more difficult now than ever. For many people, they’ve already developed behavioral patterns that stem from mental, emotional, and personality tendencies that have transformed throughout their lifetime (low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, narcissism, so on and so forth). And sometimes they might not even are trying to be difficult, but may because they anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment.

With continuous practice, I am now learning to check my reflexive defensiveness. There are a handful of communication tools that can be applied in conversations and relationships to help us become better active listeners and avoid throwing up a wall.

Listen with the focus on learning

When having a conversation with another person, are we actually listening? Or are we just waiting for our turn to talk and respond? If I am honest with myself and you, more often than not, I catch myself leaning towards the latter.

For example, if my boyfriend tries to express his irritation with something I said or did, my first instinct is to refute whatever I’m being accused of. I have to remind myself to focus on what he is saying, not just on how I’m going to argue my case. Usually when I am intentionally focusing on doing this, I can admit where I’m at fault in what we’re discussing.

Trust me, it definitely isn’t a walk in the park, by any stretch. But having experiences like this teaches me to own my role as a listener with the goal of understanding or learning something about the other person. My role is not to listen to find answers, but it’s more so about creating a safe space for us both to get things out in the open and understand what each is saying.

Think before reacting

Taking a comment or complaint personally can often lead to losing your cool and jumping down that person’s throat about it. If I feel myself getting defensive, I try to take that moment to step back and analyze why I’m getting so upset. What am I angered about? Is there some truth with what’s being said? Why is it causing this reaction?

Most likely, what the other person is sharing is about their needs, not yours. Letting your anger control the situation only adds fuel to the fire. Take a few breathers and allow yourself to fully understand what they’re saying.

Include “I” in your statements

Using “I” statements can be one approach to repress defensiveness on your end. “I” statements mean you are describing your thoughts, feelings, and perception of what you just heard. It also can mean you’re taking responsibility for your part in the situation. The moment we start throwing the word “you” (you always do this, or, you always act like this) into everything it creates an opposite emotional response.

Starting sentences with “I” helps us communicate what we know about ourselves, rather than what we assume about others. I know for sure I don’t like someone telling me who I am or what I’m thinking or feeling… or even how I “always” am. This softer approach can help keep the conversation on the right track without spiraling into a web of accusations and defensiveness. 

Another trick to avoid getting defensive through active listening is by making sure you both feel heard and validated. If you feel hurt, angered, or disrespected, you can certainly say so. If possible, describe exactly what you heard or saw that caused your reaction. “When you said _______, I felt _______, and that made me feel _______.” Framing my statements like this helps me not blame the other person while taking responsibility for my own feelings in the situation.

Accept responsibility for your part and apologize

When applicable, a sincere apology goes a long way.

An authentic apology can help calm a tense conversation and can indicate that you are owning your part in the situation. If it’s apparent that you’re at fault, take responsibility for yourself. Something as simple as, “I’m sorry for what I said (or how I acted), and I understand that hurt your feelings. I wish I had been more thoughtful and want to use this as a learning opportunity,” makes a huge difference.

Deep down, I think we all want to be effective and authentic listeners. We want to be known as the partner, friend, sibling, who can thoroughly listen and receive what is being said to them.

Learning to listen without getting defensive and irrational won’t happen overnight, believe me. It will require patience, time, and constant practice. But I’m learning that I, in fact, have more ownership and personal responsibility in the conversation that happen in all the relationships of my life.

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