Not long ago, I completed a training in which I heard an explanation of "defensiveness" that was new to me. It made a whole lot of sense: Defensiveness is the first step toward irrational thinking.
Hmmm. The first step toward irrational thinking.
That's really, really true for me.
When I was first married, and my husband and I were bungling along doing the new-couple dance of figuring out how conflict would be handled in our relationship, arguments often escalated because I would grow very, very defensive—and it would happen very, very quickly. When defensive, it wasn't long until I would be completely, thoroughly irrational.
I hate feeling irrational. When it happens—rarely these days, thankfully—I seem to eerily divide myself into two people: the one who's feeling irrational, and the one who is watching the show. The "me" that is watching knows, in the deep, dark place where truth really lies, that I'm being ridiculous and making no sense. But it's impossible to pull out of irrationality without physically removing from the situation and taking time to calm down.
But I have learned—slowly, and certainly not easily—to avoid defensiveness at all costs. In personal relationships and in my work, I have taught myself to develop the skill of detecting defensiveness the instant it creeps up. You're feeling defensive, I say to myself, specifically naming it and acknowledging that it is there. Then, I make conscious efforts to pull back from defensiveness by giving myself the alternative: If you stay defensive, you will soon be in a place of irrationality. Which doesn't work for you. Usually, this self-lecture allows me to stay logical and open-minded. I force myself to stop, breathe, and take a break—often literally walking away for a few moments until I'm ready to move on.
Here's the thing: Defensiveness is something that is always going to be there. It has value, of course, which is why it's a thing. It shows up to make us hyper-aware of a threat; it puts us in a place to protect ourselves from something dangerous. Which can be a really good thing. But I've learned that I'm a person prone to quick defensiveness, so I have to consciously manage it. Which takes work. I have to keep practicing it, just like I practice yoga and practice writing. I revisit it often and with full-on focus. It has made me a better leader—and, no doubt, a better spouse and mother and friend.
I've also learned a lot about how to manage defensiveness in others. Come back on Monday for some ideas!