Sunday, October 2, 2011

Understanding the Expressions of Defensiveness

Last time, we talked about the basic actions taken when one is defending oneself in a perceived attack. These actions drive us away from addressing the issue constructively, and towards escaping relevant discussion about it.

These actions are taken by us all, and our expressed in our own personal way. The graphic below shows how we express these actions on a continuum. In the middle is the “ideal” expression. Honest, adult, explicit, and empathetic so that our counterpart knows just how we feel AND that we don’t harm our relationship with them. This is sometimes difficult to do, especially if one feels fear about how the other party may take it and hasn’t developed the skill to express themselves using THE SCORE. If we fail to express ourselves (and keep others on track to express themselves) in the “ideal” zone, we will find ourselves in a conversation that is not targeted on collaboratively finding our best ideas. Instead, we are engaged in a “face-saving” activity.

The continuum ranges from very passive ways to act and react to very aggressive ways (from “silence to violence”).

For instance, depending on the severity of the threat we are feeling, we may choose to express our feelings using sarcasm. This is just to the “passive” side of ideal, a form of “masking” in which we don’t directly say what we mean but instead say the opposite of that we mean, but in a way that conveys our feeling. This is how we avoid confronting a perceived threat.

Let’s say coworker presents an idea that we feel isn’t practical. If we are timid about telling them the idea isn’t very good (for instance, we are afraid they will react badly) we may use sarcasm to avoid saying that the idea is bad. We might say “Oh …that’s a GREAT idea” in such a way that it is clear that we think it is a bad idea, but without really SAYING it. Sarcasm is a way of “masking” what we really mean, but in such a way as we are still expressing it.

Slightly more passive is “avoidance” in which we say something, but don’t even hint they we don’t agree. This often takes the form of wordplay. From the example above, instead of being sarcastic we might say “Very interesting idea…I wouldn’t have thought of it”. Here we have used ambiguity to avoid letting our coworker know our true feelings. Finally, the most passive position is “withdrawal” in which we simply don’t say anything, or we just “go along”.

Moving the other way on the continuum from ideal, we travel down increasingly more aggressive methods of defensiveness. “Controlling” is one in which we may ask a question in a loaded way (“You aren’t going to believe THAT, are you?”) in order to create uncertainty in another’s mind and encourage them to change without using reasons. This is what controlling is about.

Next stop is labeling, in which we affix labels usually emotionally charged labels, as a substitute for reason (“I can’t believe that you listen to NPR and all their socialist nonsense!” OR “I can’t believe that you listen to Fox News and all their fascist nonsense!”). The labeling is more aggressive than controlling because the labels are SUBSTITUTES for reasons; the emotional charge of the labels are intended to be enough to cause the counterpart to react as the speaker intends. Last stop is attack, in which there accusations made that do not address the topic, but perhaps the person making the suggestion. Google “ad hominem” attacks for lots of data on this.

The best way to deal with departure from the ideal is to ask questions about the topic; specificly about how your counterpart sees things, and to avoid becoming defensive yourself. Both take more skill as your counterpart moves down the continuum towards withdrawl or attack. We have recently talked about, and will talk next time about, the questions that one can askto draw the counterpart back to the ideal state in the continuum.

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