more thoughts on minimizing defensiveness

Many mental health models attribute defensiveness or reactivity to a character flaw in the client.  Motivational Interviewing takes a different perspective by viewing defensiveness as a natural byproduct of certain kinds of interactions initiated by the counselor.

To translate that to real life relationships:  If the person I am talking to becomes defensive, it's usually a signal that I overstepped my boundaries in some way, and I need to back off.  Most of the time their reaction does not mean they are touchy or too sensitive or can't handle the truth. There are exceptions, of course, and some people are much more tuned in to this type of violation than others.

Most often, defensiveness arises because we have been disrespectful by implying that we know what someone else should do.  This can be very subtle - it may feel to us like we are just being helpful or offering a solution the other party may not have considered.  We may even feel really good about being able to offer our insight in hopes that it will solve their problem.  Nevertheless, if we dispense even well intentioned suggestions or advice without first asking if the other person is interested in our opinion, we risk triggering resistance.  

Implications that the other party screwed up, is about to screw up, or is otherwise less than capable are other common defensiveness triggers.  Interrupting, talking over someone, telling them they are in denial or not seeing clearly, or jumping to inaccurate conclusions are also likely to set it off.  Most people simply do not like being told what to do, or that they are wrong.

Of course, being abundantly human, we will all trip into this territory at times.  So it can be helpful to know how to back up, repair the damage to the relationship, and restore harmony.  Here's one way:

If I notice a friend becoming defensive, I can pause, take a breath, and look into his or her eyes. I can say, "Uh oh, I think I might have stepped out of line there.  I'm sorry -- does it feel like I am telling you what to do or saying you are wrong?" 

Then I can listen to the response, and reflect it:  "So when I suggested craigslist, it sounded like I thought you needed my help finding work.  Of course you can handle your own job search!  I'm sorry about that.  Please go on. I will focus more on my listening."

What's amazing is that even people we thought were impossible to deal with usually respond very well to this approach.  Most folks really appreciate having their autonomy respected, and will readily forgive us when we take responsibility for our transgressions.  This dance is not always an easy one, but it seems worth it to me...   

fight club

For the past four days now, a robin has been attacking my living room window. He sits on a branch in the pine tree two feet from the glass, puffs his chest up, zooms right at the window, hits it, and flies back to the branch, only to repeat this cycle approximately 4 seconds later.  His persistence is stunning. 

I told a friend about this, and he suggested the robin might be either fighting or trying to mate with his own reflection.  So I tried closing the curtain, turning on a light inside, and taping a piece of paper on the window.  But he didn't stop.  He starts at first light, and does not leave until dark.  I don't know when he eats.  He's really working overtime on this project.

On the first day, I was concerned that he was going to knock himself out and die, and that's when I tried all those tricks.  On the second day, I sat down to watch closely, and noticed that he wasn't hitting the window with his body, just his feet.  So I'm leaning toward the fighting hypothesis rather than the mating one, unless robins have something in their claws I don't know about. 

The day two thud wasn't quite as loud as day one, so the force of his impact had lessened.  And since he was still coming back for more within 4 seconds, I decided to just leave him alone.  Who am I to interfere with the free will of a determined avian warrior?  I started developing a grudging respect for his feisty determination. 

On the third morning, when he started again at 5:30 am, my daughter asked if we knew anyone with a BB gun.  I laughed, but started scanning my mental list of contacts. 

This morning, I had a revelation.  I sat there watching him during breakfast, and realized that he was teaching me something important about projection and aggression.  The more he felt threatened by that bird he thought was his enemy, the more aggressive his body language became.  And of course, the bird in the window immediately reciprocated.  And since neither one of them were backing down, an attack became inevitable.

Which made me wonder - where in my life could I also be perceiving aggression which is actually only a reflection of my own fear?  Hmmm.

So I thanked my messenger, and taped up a much bigger piece of paper on the window, trying to place it exactly where it would disrupt the reflection from his favorite perch.  He hit it one more time (habits die hard), then hopped around a bit looking for his enemy.  And not finding him, he unfluffed his chest, and flew away.  I haven't heard him since. 

oops, I spoke too soon!  just as I typed that sentence, I heard him again.  He found another branch with a view.  I'll tape up some more paper.  I spose one way or another, he'll eventually get tired of this or something will distract him.  Hey, does anyone know a pretty female robin seeking an alpha male for a mate?

a quick thought about minimizing defensiveness

I think I've mentioned before that I coach probation officers in a technique called Motivational Interviewing.  It's a set of communication skills that helps to minimize defensive reactions in clients, and assists them in resolving the ambivalent feelings that keep them from making the lifestyle changes they want to make.  I've recently noticed some areas of my life where I'd like to implement these skills more consistently, so these are sort of my notes to myself.   

The backbone of Motivational Interviewing is reflections.  A reflection is a statement that conveys to the speaker what the listener heard and understood of their message.  For example, if someone says, "How can they expect me to stop drinking when all my best friends meet at the bar every night after work?"  I might reflect, "So you are wondering how you could possibly give up something that's been such an important part of your social life so far." 

I offer reflections in my professional relationships every day.  And I'm not so hot at it in my personal relationships.  I seem to take for granted that there's a core of accurate understanding between us, so I jump right into my response without letting the other person know my understanding of what I am responding to. 

It's not that reflections need to happen constantly.  I don't need to respond to a comment that a hamburger sounds tasty right now by reflecting, "So you are feeling hungry and a hamburger would satisfy that."

But when we are discussing emotional issues, and I sense closure or defensiveness arising, it is probably going to facilitate a more open and productive conversation if I remember to wait to share my response until I've clarified the other person's message, and we are both sure that I've understood what they want me to understand.

protesters may serve a different purpose than they intend

I had the good fortune to be on the campus of Boulder High School today as they were preparing to greet some extremists who travel the country picketing places they think need to be further educated about God's real will, which they apparently seem to believe does not include unconditional love or acceptance of homosexuality.   

The response of the Boulder High student body, known locally to be a diverse, tolerant, and liberal bunch, was very heartening.  The sidewalks around the school were chalked with colorful images and messages of love and inclusion. They were throwing a pizza party in celebration of unity.  There were handlettered signs and banners expressing kindness to all sexual orientations, religions, and belief systems.  Youthful exuberance overflowed into rainbows, hearts, flowers, peace signs, and a sea of tie-dyed tshirts.  It was quite a beautiful sight. 

I found myself silently thanking the traveling rabble rousers, wondering if they are aware of the blessings they are leaving in their wake -- people coming together in great numbers, unified in their intention to express love and support for those who have been targeted.  I found the whole thing so ironic that I couldn't stop smiling.

judgment squared

today's abraham quote rang clear as a bell to me:

....the reason you feel bad [when others judge you] is because you are judging them about their judging.  - Abraham-Hicks
Although many of us think we feel bad because we don't like to be judged, the truth is that our suffering is actually self-induced.  When we condemn others for judging us, we disconnect from the flow of love in our own hearts. 
Since loving is the most natural state for us, we have to actively close off in order to condemn someone -- it takes effort.  When we withhold love and acceptance from someone else to punish them for judging us, we are sort of like toddlers holding our own breath to make a point.  Which is cute, but also kind of silly.
There is another way to respond that feels much better.  Love them anyway.  Let them have their opinions of you.  Keep your distance if you'd like.  But don't shut down your heart.  Send them a blessing, which they desperately need because it hurts to be judgmental, and then shift your focus onto something or someone that you can actively love.