I could feel the heat in my forehead. And my heartbeat in my temples.
Our counselor was kindly asking me to repeat back to Brooke, in my own words, what I heard her say.
I just sat there. Arms crossed.
“Justin, from her perspective, what did she just say? What did you hear?”
“Screw her perspective, what about mine…” I didn’t say that verbally, thank God.
What I did say was, “Uh…well…uh…Brooke would you mind repeating it?”
I was so caught up in my own head, it was impossible to hear her heart.
She repeated herself.
I made a decent effort at it, but my skills were terrible. Let alone connect to her heart, I legitimately couldn’t even say the words that needed to be said.
My defended, protected, calloused posture prevented me from entering her story.
“Hear what she’s saying, from her perspective, don’t take it so personally.”
“Are you for real man? How could I not take it personally?” again, thankfully that response stayed in my brain.
He eventually jumped in as me, to model for me a better way to communicate to my own wife.
“Brooke, I understand why you’d be feeling that way, it has to be so hard for you….can you tell me more of…”
While it helped her, it actually made me even more defended.
“Dammit, why can’t I sound like him? I’m a shitty husband…” the head trash continued.
Even with a wonderful model, I still stayed all locked up in my mind, unable (and possibly even unwilling) to lay my ego down, to not take things so personally, and enter her world in a full-hearted way.
They let me try again. Eventually, the heart strings warmed up, the defensiveness dissolved, and I was able to find a chord to connect to.
Marriage isn’t the only place where I bow up, hold on tight to my view, and cling for dear life to my defended nature.
It happens in parenting.
It takes place at work.
It shows up in relationships of all kinds.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt defensive, willing to go to the mat for an idea, concept, opinion, or belief that seems soooooo damn important in the moment.
But if you have, and if you don’t want to continue to torture those around you, here are five concepts that have helped me.
- Take a Deep Breath. Literally. Before you respond, before you try and convince, before you unload the arsenal, take a huge, deep breath. For me, I try and take a four second breath in, hold it for four seconds, then unload it for four seconds. It’s amazing what the body can do when you give it a chance to find itself before the natural ruts take over.
- Don’t Take Things So Personally. Easier said than done, especially in the moment. But when I remember, and deeply experience, that nothing anyone says can rattle my true identity, I find it much easier to enter someone else’s story.
- Say More. When a spouse, client, colleague, or friend is sharing something that feels like criticism, or even just deep concerns, at the end of their explanation, ask them to say more. It allows the heart to warm up, and it gives the other person the chance to expand on their thoughts, give more context, and perhaps even self-realize some of their own journey. When I’m quick to launch into a reply, I’m not really listening. Saying “say more” helps me be a better listener.
- Reflect Back. I’m still a major work in progress on this one, but one way to help the other person feel understood, valued, and heard is to repeat back to them, in your own words, what you heard them say. It’s the lesson our counselor modeled for me several years ago. Try something like, “Thanks for sharing, it’s great to hear your perspective. I think I’m hearing you say that….” Then say the stuff you heard them say, and then close with, “Did I understand you? Is that what it’s like for you?” By slowing things down, giving the conversation room to breathe, and finding some common understanding diffuses lots of the emotion. And then opens the door for connection.
- Say Sorry. Certainly the one on the list I’ve leaned on most. The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is repair. The goal is an honest attempt at moving towards, not away. Defensiveness divides, apologies draw near.
The very nature of being defended keeps others out. Be the spouse, leader, parent, and friend who dissolves the defensiveness.
It’s hard work, but worth every effort.