Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill

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“Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Jack blamed Jill,
Jill blamed Jack,
And each vowed they would
Never come back.”

What is the secret of good couples communication? What one simple skill tremendously improves the ability of couples to discuss difficult subjects?

It is the skill of non-defensive responding. What do I mean by this?

Let me give you an example. Imagine a hypothetical couple Jack and Jill. Jack comes home from work and is tired and hungry. Jill got home from her job one hour before. She’s sitting on the couch reading the paper.

Jack says, “I can’t believe you haven’t started dinner. I’m really hungry! You’re just sitting there relaxing, while I’m starving!”

(If you were Jill, how would you react?)

A typical response that Jill might make would be something like, “You’ve got hands, why don’t you make dinner! Why do you expect me to be your slave!?”

At which point it is likely a good fight would ensue.

The non-defensive response would be something like, “It sounds like you’re really hungry and kind of annoyed that I haven’t started dinner yet. You’re absolutely right, I was really stressed out when I got home from work and I decided to relax for a while rather than start dinner. I can see how you would feel frustrated getting home from work tired and hungry and seeing me just sitting here. Why don’t you sit down and relax and I’ll get us some quick snacks, and then get dinner started.”

Notice the difference. In the first example Jill counterattacks. Jack will counterattack in return and quickly things will escalate into a full fight.

In the non-defensive example Jill acknowledges Jack’s feelings. Then she finds some truth in his statement. Next she validates his feelings. And finally, she proposes a solution.

This is an incredibly powerful skill for reducing conflict and improving communication between people. In this article I will give you some basic theoretical rationale for why non-defensive responding works so well, and then teach you — step-by-step — how respond non-defensively.

First the theory. Human ego is a delicate thing. We spend a lot of our energy defending our sense of self against attacks or criticisms. The problem with this model is that it’s impossible to defend completely against all attacks or criticisms. This is because most of us are very far from perfect — we are quite flawed — and we know it.

The problem is that we don’t accept it. We have this all or nothing model of ourselves which says either we are perfect or we are awful. So when any criticism comes along, it challenges our model of being perfect and we slip into the painful feelings of complete inadequacy.

We don’t like feeling inadequate, so we try to deny or counterattack any criticism. There are so many types of defensive responding that it’s difficult to catalog all of them. But some of the major types of defensive responding are described below. (These are based on John Gottman’s work on communication.)

Major Kinds of Defensiveness

1. Denying responsibility. This involves denying that you’re at fault no matter what your partner accuses you of. If your wife says you hurt her feelings by saying something insensitive, you reply that you didn’t do anything wrong.

2. Making excuses. This is when you acknowledge the mistake, but create a reason for why circumstances outside your control forced you to make the mistake. Classic examples of this are, “traffic made me late,” or “I just forgot to pick up the milk.”

3. Disagreeing with negative mind reading. This is when you disagree with your partner’s interpretation of your internal state or emotion.

Jack: You seemed very frustrated with me tonight.
Jill: That’s not true, I was just tense being at a work party.

4. Cross complaining. This defensive response involves meeting your partner’s complaint or criticism with an immediate complaint of your own. An example would be:

Jill: you never take me out anymore.
Jack: and you never cook me dinner anymore!

5. Rubber man/rubber woman. This is based on the old saying, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” In this form of defensiveness, you immediately counterattack with a similar criticism.

Jack: You were very mean to me at the party tonight.
Jill: Well you were mean to me yesterday when we visited your mother’s house.

6. Yes-Butting.  This is where you start off agreeing, but then end up negating the agreement.

Jack: You said you would put away your work papers off the dining room      table.
Jill: Yes I did, but I was waiting for you to clear off your books first.

7. Repeating yourself. This involves repeating the criticism again and again without listening to your partner.

8. Whining. This involves the sound of your voice and the stressing of one syllable at the end of this sentence. For instance, “You always ignore me at parties.”

9. Body language. Typical body language signs of defensiveness are crossing your arms across her chest, shifting side to side, and a false smile.

Ultimately the goal of all defensiveness is to preserve the self. This is a commendable but hopeless goal, since defensiveness triggers elevated levels of criticism from the other person. As Gottman has so elegantly described, the more you defend yourself, the harsher the criticism you receive. That’s because when someone criticizes you they want you to knowledge the validity of their feelings and thoughts. When you respond defensively you are invalidating them, so they escalate the criticism. If you can’t hear them the first time, they say it louder.

This of course leads you to become even more defensive because the criticism is now much harsher. And the two of you are off to the races! The fight escalates, gets personal, and both of you end up feeling damaged.

So what is the solution? How do we get out of this vicious cycle of defensiveness and criticism?

The answer is a radical shift in the way we think about ourselves. Radical non-defensiveness is the answer.

What is radical non-defensiveness? First it requires a shift in our core beliefs about ourselves. Remember that most of us have an all-or-nothing model of our self. We believe, “I must be perfect otherwise I am crap. If anyone points out my imperfections, they are basically saying that I am crap, and I won’t listen and I will counterattack.”

Radical non-defensiveness means that we shift our core belief about ourself to, “I am a flawed human being. I make many mistakes. I can improve on almost anything I do. But even with my flaws I am a worthwhile and valuable person.”

With this radically changed belief about the self, criticism changes as well. Instead of criticism meaning that we are worthless human being, it simply acknowledges the reality of being flawed, and helps us to improve.

If you think about it for a moment, you might realize that radical non-defensiveness is the antidote to perfectionism. Perfectionism beliefs cause much human suffering. When we feel that we need to be perfect in order to be worthwhile we are living in a glass house. The smallest pebble can crack our armor. And that pebble can be any criticism.

The radical non-defensive model is completely the opposite of perfectionism. I don’t need to be perfect to be good and worthwhile. I can shoot for an 85 rather than 100. If I make a mistake, I can acknowledge it and realize that everybody makes mistakes.

Let’s go over — step-by-step — how to respond non-defensively. (Some of this is based on some of David Burns’s work on communication.)

First let’s create another example of criticism. Back to Jack and Jill. They have finished dinner, and Jack retires to his laptop computer, where he spends the next several hours deep in Internet surfing. Jill tries to talk to him about something that happened at work, but he ignores her. Finally, she explodes, “You never listen to me!  You are always surfing on your stupid computer! You don’t care about me, and you’d rather watch YouTube videos than listen to my problems. You are an uncaring husband!”

Whew! That’s pretty intense criticism isn’t it? How can Jack respond non-defensively to this?

Let me take you through it step by step.

Step One: Paraphrase back to the person the thoughts and feelings they are expressing to you.

Jack says, “It sounds like you’re really frustrated and angry with me right now, because I was on the computer rather than focusing on you.”

Step Two: Find SOME truth in what they are saying. In this step what you try to do is select whatever reality-based truth there is, and ignore hostile names or labels. You focus on the behavior that you’ve committed rather than the nasty labels.

Jack says, “You are absolutely right. I have been spending way too much time on my computer and not enough time connecting with you.”

Step Three: Validate the emotion paraphrased in Step One, and connect it to the behavior in Step Two. This lets the person know that many people, including you, might feel the same emotion in the same situation.

Jack says, “I can see why you might feel frustrated. If I wanted to talk more with you and you were reading all the time I’d probably feel the same way. It makes perfect sense.”

Step Four: Offer possible solutions. Here there are several options. One option is a genuine apology. This is very powerful. Another option is to suggest discussing the problem in order to find solutions. This option is best when the criticism encompasses a complex problem that can’t easily be resolved. Another option is to simply fix the problem right then and there.

Jack closes his computer and says, “I’m really sorry. I do want to hear what happened at work, why don’t we sit together on the couch and talk about it.”

Step Five: Thank the other person for bringing the problem to your attention. This is probably the most alien step of all for most people. How can you thank someone for criticizing you? If you recall in the radical non-defensiveness model, you acknowledge that you can always improve, and that criticism is often what helps you to improve. So thanking the person for criticizing you is really saying thank you for caring enough about me to help me improve.

Jack says, “Thanks Jill for telling me how you feel. That allows me to be more conscious of being a better husband. Thanks again.”

One typical objection to non-defensive responding is “Won’t the the other person criticize me more if I don’t defend myself?” The truth is actually the opposite. The more you defend yourself the more criticism you receive, and the harsher the criticism becomes. Most criticism is designed to create change or to be listened to, and defensive responding achieves neither.

Another objection is, “What if the criticism is completely unfounded or unjust? How can I respond non-defensively in that case?”

Criticism is rarely completely unfounded. There is almost always SOME truth in most criticism. Even if it just factual truth, you can agree with it. Example:
Jill: You were flirting with that woman Nancy at the party. You’d like to sleep with her.
Jack: You are absolutely right, I was flirting a little. I can see how that would upset you. I don’t want to sleep with her though. What can we do at the next party so I don’t upset you?

Try using this skill at home, at work, with friends, and with family. You will be surprised at how effective it is. I’ve summarized the steps below.

Now I’ve got to go apologize to my sweetie for spending so much time writing this….

Non-Defensive Responding Step by Step
1. Empathy: respond with empathic reflection, “It sounds like you are feeling quite angry at me for forgetting your birthday.”  (Use tone matching and empathic body language). Reflect both content and feeling.

2. Find some truth in the statement, and strongly agree. “You are absolutely right. I totally forgot your birthday! What a dope I am!”

3. Validate the emotions reflected in step 1. “I can see why you are angry. I’d be angry in your situation too!”

4. Offer possible solutions, compromise, problem solving, or an apology.
“I blew it, I’m very sorry, and I’d like to make it up to you by taking you away next weekend. How does that sound?”

5. Show appreciation for the person giving you the feedback. “Thanks for letting me know how you feel. Now I can make a point of not forgetting your birthday.”

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.