What makes you feel defensive? Chances are it’s when you feel threatened by what someone said or did. Usually, it’s a visceral, instantaneous response. You feel judged, dismissed, wrongly (or rightly) criticized or put down. It’s as if your identity–your core self–is under attack. At least it feels that way to your amygdala, your emotional brain. It releases cortisol and adrenaline and before you know it, you’re on the counter attack.
It’ll take twenty minutes for those chemicals to recede before you feel calm and able to think clearly again.
This is exactly what happens when someone is defensive with you. Their sub-conscious emotional brain–also affectionately known as the reptilian brain–takes them over.
It may be difficult to “keep from slithering into reptile mode” when someone launches an attack, as Martha Beck writes on Oprah.com. So instead of “going lizard, go turtle,” she says. Going turtle means putting up an emotional protective shell. You do this by imagining a bright color, your favorite spot on the planet, or by giving yourself a mental puzzle to solve. Basically, you engage your thinking brain.
Pulling into your turtle shell reduces your emotionality and protects you against a knee-jerk response you might regret later.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew how to reduce the degree of defensiveness in the first place?
Jack R. Gibb, a twentieth century expert on trust and communication, became famous for his taxonomy of defensive and supportive behaviors. In it, he identifies the specific types of behaviors that provoke defensiveness and those that promote collaborative problem solving.
His work has held up over the years. I thought you’d find it helpful too and so I created an infographic inspired by his original list.
Let me know what you think after reading through this. Does it make sense? Do you have experiences on either end of the spectrum you could share? What questions does this approach raise for you?