Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill

“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 acknowledge 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

10 thoughts on “Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill

  1. Hi Andrew,

    thanks for the good reminder and a good terminology to keep in mind. Will try to use it more often.

    Happy Holidays.


  2. Nice work! Connecting the all/nothing feeling and perfectionism is a powerful insight.

  3. Although generally speaking this is good advice, I think that it is, in practice quite difficult to implement, in large part because what is most relevant is not actually WHAT one says, but HOW one says it, and that’s quite hard to figure out, and to learn, and esp. hard to get across in a web post. (I’m reminded of a joke and I actually made up, but then I saw a comic actually use it on stage — the bastard! 🙂 Anyway, the joke is this: You know the game where you’re all sitting around after Chinese dinner reading the fortune cookies, and you make them sound slightly pornographic by adding “Baby” to the end, for example, the fortune says: “You will get a wonder gift.” and you add “…Baby”, so that it say, slightly pornographically: “You will get a wonderful gift … Baby!” … Now consider this fortune: “Eat this”, well, you could create, slightly pornographically: “Eat This … Baby!” … but if you just say it as though it doesn’t have the “…” or the exclamation point, the same words come out as though you’re talking about cannibalism: “Eat this baby.” Now, if you don’t get what’s funny about this joke, you’re probably not lost, and it’s not that I didn’t tell it right, rather, it’s all in the intonation, and I can only poorly approximate the intonation! The exact same words can mean completely different things based upon how they are said. (This is also probably a large part of why arguments in email escalate out of control: I mean something as a joke, but the relevant intonation was in my head, and you read it some other way.) Similarly, it’s extremely difficult to explain to people (even in person) how to use intonation to diffuse (or de-fuse) an ensuing fight. One part of your advice that I find esp. pron to intonation problems is the first, paraphrase, part (“I hear you saying ….”) There are two reason that this is esp. problematic. First, it’s very easily to make it sound like you’re talking down to the person. So, instead of hearing a paraphrase, the hearer hears a brush off, as though you’re trying to teach the person how to communicate correctly! (Note that for all the same reasons above, it’s hard for me to give examples of what I mean; I’ll have to depend upon the reader’s good common sense to interpret what I’m talking about correctly!) So, much as I agree that radical non-defensiveness is important (if difficult to spell!), it is also much more complex to implement than can be captured by a set of rules. I guess that the rules don’t hurt, but additional work, for example role-playing, may be important in actual implementation, because the same rules, applied with the wrong cues (you do mention body language, but esp. tone of voice) can create a worse problem than there was to begin with.

  4. Thanks for the very interesting comment. I do agree that voice tone and body language makes a big difference, and I probably should have written more about these issues in defensiveness. Tone is terribly important. A sarcastic or insincere tone certainly can defeat the utility of non-defensive responding. What I find in clinical practice is that the more people practice these skills, particularly with some role playing and coaching, the better they get at both the content and the tone. I’m reminded of a famous quote from the comedian George Burns, “sincerity is the secret to life, once you can fake it you’ve got it made!”

    I also think it’s important to find your own style of non-defensive responding. You don’t need to say “I hear you saying.” Instead a simple direct paraphrase, or “Sounds like you are angry about X,” will suffice. Find your own style, rather than copying anyone else’s.

    Mostly what your comment suggests is that some coaching or therapy is helpful to fine tune the use of these skills, and that just reading about them won’t produce miraculous changes. I completely agree with this.

  5. A few questions:

    Is the “grain of truth” approach dishonest? For example, if someone calls you “the biggest loser in the world” and you say, “You know I agree. I have been rude and inconsiderate to you lately.” You don’t really agree with their global criticism. So when you say you agree are you being manipulative or is it reasonable in this case because their initial criticism was an irrational global label anyways? I guess I have had a few stumbling blocks and the “manipulative, dishonest” part was one.

    Another was that I fear that the non-defensive approach sets you up to be agreeable. It seems like people have free reign to say whatever they want to you and you are just going to agree in some fashion. Does this set you up to be a doormat?

    I guess I just have this inclination that non-defensiveness is passive and agreeable or even apologetic. But perhaps this is just ego and the perfectionistic influence in me crying out for the status quo.

  6. Hi Steve, thanks for the interesting comments. The key with a grain of truth is that it actually has to be accurate. So if someone called you the “biggest loser in the world”, I might say “you know you sound really frustrated with me. I do make a lot of mistakes and I’ve obviously made a big one with you. Can you tell me more about it? What specifically are you frustrated by?” Most of the time the negative labeling the people use is just a sign of their frustration, and isn’t even really what they want to say to you.

    Generally these skills are best used with people that you have a relationship with that you care about. If someone’s just being a jerk, you can simply ignore them or to avoid them. If anything I think nondefensive responding is more honest and less manipulative than most of what people do.

    The other issue that a lot of people worry about is the whole doormat issue. But the truth is is that getting defensive typically makes people more critical and more abusive towards you. Unless you escalate into high-level hostility, you’ll probably end up being a doormat anyway. If you instead respond non-defensively you stay calm and can certainly be assertive. So that’s really the opposite of being a doormat. Non-defensiveness is never about apologizing at its core. Sometimes an apology is appropriate, but most of the time it’s better to actually suggest problem-solving or problem resolution. Talk is cheap, and most people prefer to be heard and for a solution to be proposed rather than a simple apology.

    Your comment at the end about perfectionism is an important one. Most of us are really remarkably perfectionist about ourselves, so it’s very hard to admit openly and are flaws and weaknesses. We assume that people will attack us if we do so. But getting defensive about these flaws almost guarantees that people will counterattack. The truth is we are all very flawed human beings. The sooner we accept that, the happier we can be. The core of non-defensiveness is a lack ego and a loss of perfectionism. Thanks for encouraging me to think more about this.

    Your response

  7. Thanks so much for your response. I had a couple follow up questions if you don’t mind. I looked into David Burn’s Five Secrets and he seems to advocate saving problem solving until later in the whole conversation process. My understanding of his reasoning is that problem solving too early can prevent people from expressing their frustration, anger, etc. I’m curious about your perspective on this. Do you think it matters much in the grand scheme or is it more of a situation by situation issue?

    Here’s a couple examples to maybe help clarify:

    Imagine your friend/wife/etc says the following after you have let them down a number of times in the past…
    “How can I ever trust you again!?”
    “I told you I could never trust you again!”

    Those seem hard to disarm to me without affirming your untrustworthiness. If you say, “You know I am untrustworthy at times” that doesn’t seem like it’s going to encourage people to change their perspective, but saying “I am trustworthy just give me one more chance!” also obviously isn’t going to make too much headway either. This is also a place where the difference between problem solving early vs. waiting could be important. If someone is as upset as they likely would be above, how are you supposed to get them back on your side? Does early problem solving trivialize what they might be feeling?

  8. Thanks for another great question.

    This is a very complex question. First of all, I totally agree that the first job of non-defensive listening is listening. Jumping to solutions or problem solving too quickly can further annoy the other person. That said, just empathizing without any apology, problem solving, or effort to resolve the problem will also tend to annoy most people. So it’s a delicate balance.

    Your second question was about how to respond non-defensively to an accusation of “I can’t ever trust you again.” First of all, you have to look at the truth behind the criticism. Is there some way in which you have been genuinely untrustworthy? Or is this an over-generalization? If the former, an honest acknowledgment of truth in the criticism might start the conversation. If the latter, I’d find some truth in the criticism and acknowledge that. I’d certainly want to hear more details about how the other person has come to this conclusion…”tell me more.” can be a good way to get at this.

    Remember, acknowledging some truth can be as simple as “I realize I let you down when I did ________.”

    These skills are subtle, and that’s why I teach them in therapy and role-play them extensively with both couples and individuals.

  9. I like your idea, but it does not address the feelings that come alive in us when we are being attacked by someone, whether fairly or unfairly.

    In your first example it was acknowledged that Jack was feeling hungry and cranky. While I agree that for Jill to respond to his emotional behavior in the way you suggested will prevent a fight, Jill may be left with some residual feelings of resentment at his treatment of her. After she has guessed at what might be causing him to behave this way (hungry, tired) and empathized with him, she may need to talk about how she feels when he comes home cranky. As an adult, Jack needs to own his feelings and express them in a more helpful way.

    In your second example, where Jill accuses Jack of not caring about her because he is on the computer and she wants to spend time with him, how about Jill take accountability for her feelings and instead of attacking Jack she says to him “I’m feeling lonely and stressed tonight. I wonder if you could spend some time with me in a little while, after you’re done there.”

  10. Thanks for your comment Ann. While I agree with you that there are better and worse ways to express feedback and criticism, the idea of Radical Non-Defensiveness assumes that much of the time when people are angry they will revert to more negative ways of expressing feedback. We all feel a little defensive when criticized, and more so when criticized harshly. The goal of Radical Non-Defensiveness is not to avoid fights (it will do that), but rather to handle feedback in ways that strengthen relationships.

    Although it’s nice to say that people should take accountability for their feelings, most of the time people don’t. So having the skills to respond non-defensively to typical ways that people express criticism is essential. In an ideal world everyone would express themselves like your second example of Jill, but we don’t live in an ideal world.

    The other key concept I think is important is that Radical Non-Defensiveness is not simply a technique, it is also a way of thinking. Remember this point I made in the article:

    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.”

    So even when our partner is cranky, tired, hungry, or stressed, we can acknowledge that we could do a better job loving them. And not feel upset when they point this fact out.

    Again, thanks for a great comment, it encouraged me to clarify some important issues.

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