I don’t like to be told what I’m doing wrong or when someone “encourages” me to take some ground in specific areas of my life. I don’t like when my wife and kids, with lots of love, inform me that I hurt or offended them. I don’t like when my community sees some sin in my life and challenges me to grow. Lord knows I’m not perfect, but I sure don’t want you to tell me where I fall short.
There’s a word for my argumentative response to someone’s attempts to challenge or grow me. It’s called being defensive. We all know what it looks like (because we’ve all been defensive), but we don’t talk about it much.
Dr. John M Gottman, one of the country’s foremost relationship experts, has done a whole lot of research-based work on marriage and relationships, especially in the area of communication and conflict. Although he is not a follower of Christ, he has still provided a wealth of useful principles and counsel for making relationships work.
One of the things Gottman is most known for is what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Gottman says, these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of relationships in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Today I want to spend some time on defensiveness. Gottman says defensiveness is really a way of blaming your significant other. When you’re defensive, you deflect and in essence say, “the problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The more defensive one spouse becomes, the more the conflict escalates and the more likely a verbal attack takes place.
You and I are good at being defensive. I don’t have to try – it’s the natural reaction to hard conversations or confrontation. In conversations with my wife, I want to argue and defend. When my kids challenge me, I want to defend. And when someone in my community group challenges me or gives me feedback I don’t like, my tendency is to defend myself and argue with the feedback. Defensiveness is a form of pride and hinders the goal of growing in your relationships.
What does Defensiveness look like?
- Sometimes when we’re defensive it’s because we don’t feel safe. The other person shares something with us, and because we don’t perceive a safe environment, we respond with defensiveness.
- Other times our defensiveness takes the form of withdrawing from a conversation. If I ignore the other person than I don’t need to deal with my issues or their feedback.
- Sometimes when we’re defensive we deflect away from what we did wrong and attempt to shine the light on all we did right.
- Most often defensiveness in my life looks like a prideful, argumentative response to the other person. I make excuses or rationalize, justify my decisions and turn the tables around and point the blame finger at them.
The defensive person is one who comes to the conversation wearing boxing gloves. They’re looking for a fight and don’t want to hear what you have to say.
Whatever it looks like in your life, you and I both know that it’s ugly, prideful and is not indicative of a humble, teachable spirit.
Now that I’ve just established the fact that we all can be defensive from time to time, we need to figure out what to do about it. For those of you who think you’re not defensive, you just proved my point. Thank you. We’re even defensive when someone tells us we’re defensive. #irony
What To Do When You Want To Be Defensive
I am trying to grow in this area. Here are a few steps I take when I get feedback from others.
- Shut your mouth and listen to what the other person has to say. Proverbs 18:2, 13, James 1:19.
- Choose to be humble. James 4:6
- Thank the other person for their feedback (whether you agree or disagree). This person could be God’s provision in your life to grow. 1 Thessalonians 5:18
- Respond with gentleness, not a spirit of anger. Proverbs 15:1
- Admit it if they’re right. Ask for wisdom from the Lord (James 1:5) and specific examples from your friend on how you can grow. Confess and ask for forgiveness if needed.
- If you disagree, thank them for their feedback, take note of what they shared, and process with your spouse or community. Again, be humble. Ask for wisdom. Follow-up with them after you have processed the feedback. Remember that for most people it’s hard to give feedback to others. Thank them, again, for choosing to share with you. Proverbs 27:6.
I know it’s hard. I don’t like to be wrong, but I know I NEED God’s Word, God’s Spirit and God’s people. It would stink to go through life alone (Genesis 2:18). Most times I have experienced significant seasons of growth it’s because someone has loved me enough to share some hard truth. Don’t allow your pride and desire to defend lead you to miss out on a great growth opportunity.