Defensive language has less to do with specific words, and more to do with how we perceive threats. This changes from person to person, and event to event, so what can we learn?
First, we develop our defensive linguistic apparatus when we’re very young; generally by the time we’re about five years old, and then we just improve our vocabulary. This means that when we become defensive, we tend to regress; sometimes pretty drastically. This isn’t a resourceful state from which to operate. You don’t want to say “I know you are, but what am I?!” to your boss or spouse.
Next, it indicates the perception of a threat; emphasis on perception; regardless of a real threat’s existence. Once that trigger’s pulled, things can continue and escalate. It’s definitely preferable to recognize the trigger, and consciously defuse the scenario.
Recognition of the warning signs, and implementing a pattern interrupt can head off the battle, before it becomes one. This saves time and energy, not to mention reducing the level of stress and conflict in your life.
Another reason to not use defensive language is that it totally backfires. Rather than protect you, it tells everyone that you’re perceiving a threat. In poker, that’s showing them your hand, and there are very few negotiations in business where that’s a winning move. Even if you are perceiving a threat, letting others know that will rarely help you, and usually makes things worse.
Is the Best Defense Really a Good Offense?
A popular linguistic defense is taking the flip side of what someone says and making whatever they say into an attacking statement, so being defensive will make sense. This is the: “you look great today” “oh, so I look awful the rest of the time?!” defense. It comes across as extremely offense/attack minded, and aims to put the other person on the defense. Again, this is presupposing a conflict that never had to happen in the first place, but now is assured.
There’s no upside to this; no facilitation of communication, no dialogue, no exchange of real or useful information. The core mistake is assuming an attack. This assumption stands in the place of real information to the degree that even when something nice is said, it doesn’t get heard or processed. Reality gets dismissed, and the unreal, perceived threat gets all the attention.
The Most Common Defense - The Preemptive Strike
We’ve all experienced the preemptive strike. “I’ll quit you before you quit me.” “I’ll tell you I don’t like it before you say you don’t like it.” “I’ll say it’s not important to me before you say it’s not important to you.” If actually saying the words aloud makes it sound juvenile, remember what I said about regressing.
The Preemptive Strike is based on throwing your “opponent” off, by getting ahead of them in the chronology of the battle. If you can bomb their planes before they take off, you’ll be ahead in the “game.” This presupposes of course that they were going to use those planes to attack you, and not to bring food, medical supplies or economic trade, or maybe just to visit. Oops; there goes that productive alliance.
There’s an old joke that illustrates the folly of the preemptive strike defense. Here’s the “Neighbor’s lawnmower” version.
A guy needed to cut his lawn, but his lawnmower was broken. He decided to ask if he could borrow his neighbor’s lawnmower. As he walked over, he thought about all the favors he’d done for his neighbor over the years, and started running “what if he doesn’t lend it to me?” scenarios in his head. This started to get him angry. By the time he got to his neighbor’s front steps, he’d convinced himself the neighbor wouldn’t lend him the lawnmower - despite all the favors he’d done for him over the years! By the time he rang the doorbell, he’d worked himself up to a full boil. When his neighbor answered the door, he shouted, “You can shove your lawnmower!” and stomped away in a huff. His neighbor just stood there, confused.
How often do we find ourselves on one side or the other of this joke? It’s not funny in real life. The lawn still doesn’t get mowed and the friendship gets damaged too. Defending himself from the possible shame, hurt, or embarrassment in the projected scenario, he ensured a no-win scenario.
This all comes back to the perception of a threat. If we’re obsessively attached to a fragile identity that we’ve created, we get nervous when anyone even gets close. They might hurt or break it. This thinking is “leftovers” from childhood, and we certainly have the resources to grow beyond this level of vulnerability. We can embody the old “sticks and stones” rhyme, and walk courageously into dialogue. Real dialogue won’t hurt us.
The next time you feel triggered into defensive language, or recognize someone else doing it with you, take a moment to catch your breath and interrupt the pattern. The productive conversation will really be about why either of you is feeling a threat, and how can that be addressed and dealt with in a constructive and adult manner. Applying more mindfulness beats defensive language every time.