Imagine you’ve been confronted by your partner about some behavior. Your natural response is to tense up and become defensive as you deny, dismiss, blame, and justify, so you won’t be held accountable.
But you don’t have to do that. You have a choice. You can use your energy to fight off the accusation, or you can show some humility, change your mindset, and understand that your behavior is damaging the relationship.
Forty-two percent of users of relationup (an app that provides live relationship advice via chat) seek out help because their well-intended conversations get derailed by defensiveness.
There is a four-step process for improving your ability to communicate about topics that trigger you. The outcome of these conversations is always for you and your partner to feel more connected, no matter the solution you choose.
1. Tune into your emotions and recognize when your guard is up.
Start trying to notice when you go into defensive mode. The most obvious clue is if your partner calls you out on it. In that moment, tune into your body and focus on what it feels like to be defensive.
Can you hear the tone of your voice? Notice how your muscles tense? Being more mindful of these physical markers will allow you to catch yourself in action, so you can shift your stance right then and there (e.g., fess up to being defensive) or suggest that you postpone the conversation until you’ve had a chance to relax.
If you’re feeling self-righteous, or like you did nothing wrong, or the conversation has broken down, it’s a good time to seek advice. Try to find someone who can help you see objectively what is going on. Friends and family often hold back their true opinions to avoid alienating you. Their love and protectiveness may also affect their objectivity.
2. Try to feel what your partner is feeling.
Once you’re more centered, re-engage in the conversation. Focus on what the other person is saying. Be curious about their perspective. Ask for details and examples. Really try to understand how your behavior makes them feel.
You just may get examples of all the times you had no idea that your behavior was alienating them. In a relationship, it is very powerful for you to make room for your partner’s experiences and needs. Who doesn’t like to feel understood?
3. Ask yourself why you do this thing that alienates your partner.
Your next challenge is self-reflection—developing insight about what would motivate you to engage in this behavior. Your patterns are informed by your childhood and the coping tools that you developed years ago. It’s important to understand how you behave in your attachments to others. Do you like to be close in a relationship or do you need distance? Do you confuse collaboration with control? Are you demonstrative or do you tend to be more reserved?
This internal exploration should not be a onetime event. But as you take an honest look at yourself, you can develop a short list of qualities that you know you have and commit to keeping an eye on the ones that can negatively affect your relationships.
4. Be open to compromise and contrary action.
It is now time to figure out what you can do differently to address your partner’s concerns. By recognizing the areas in which you are challenged, you can alert yourself to the need to take contrary action when you find yourself knee-deep in old patterns.
It may feel unnatural at first to offer up compromises that stretch you beyond your comfort zone. But not being controlled by your limitations is positive for you as an individual and will benefit your relationship as well. Imagine sharing with your partner that you need more space and independence in the relationship and finding the balance between your needs and theirs.
In a relationship, powering through difficult discussions requires that both people focus on what they can do to make themselves more grounded and available. Conversations have the best chance of being productive when each person is working hard not to get caught up in instinctual responses and unhealthy patterns of interacting.