Hearing without Defending
You arrive fifteen minutes late for an appointment with your partner. She expresses her disappointment and need for predictability and asks you to call or text next time you are going to be late.
You bristle. You see her face and how upset she is and start to defend yourself. At the speed of light jackals flood your consciousness with ideas that she is judging you and making you wrong. If you are the wrong one here, then she'll break up with you. Or worse yet, it will mean you are a bad person, an incompetent failure. You better prove yourself.
Under the influence of defensiveness you quickly minimize her feelings and needs and start to make a case for how you are good person. It might sound like this, "I arrive late one time and you get all upset. You should be glad I made it. I always call when I am late, which is rare, and this one time you have to make an issue of it!"
Now your partner is reacting too and begins to recount all the times you were late and makes a case for how difficult it has been for her dealing with your issues about being on time.
The conversation escalates into more disconnect from here. How can you keep from getting caught in this painful pattern of attack -defend?
Here are three keys to hearing your partner's feelings, needs and requests in a way that creates connection.
1. Connect with Yourself First: Every time you feel the impulse to defend, you can connect with yourself in one or more of the following ways:
- Repeat a reminder phrase to yourself. Maybe something like, "I'm not a bad person because my partner is upset." Or "This is not about me." Or "It's okay for my partner to be upset." Or "I can hear her without taking the blame." Or "I am feeling defensiveness and want to remind myself that I know my intentions are good and I am a good person."
- Do something physical to interrupt your defensive pattern like lean back in your chair, take three deep breaths, or take a bathroom break.
- Put your awareness in your heart. You can put your hand on your heart and just acknowledge the difficulty and the longing to be seen and accepted. Breath through your heart and feel your hand there.
2. Stay Specific and Now: Only talk about the current situation. If you think you are already doing what she is asking, then ask if she can be more specific about her request. For example, "When I think that I already did what you requested, I feel confused and need more clarity. Can you tell me exactly what it would look like if your need was met?"
3. Offer Empathy: Reflecting back to your partner her feelings and needs not only helps her to know she is heard, but also can help you move out of right/wrong thinking. The important part here is to connect her feeling to her need, e.g., "I hear you feel disappointed because you need predictability.", rather than, "I hear you feel disappointed because I let you down."
So often I hear couples try to give empathy when they are really assigning blame, e.g., "You feel disappointed because I didn't call." While this is a common way of expressing, it perpetuates a sense of being responsible for each other feelings. When this happens you miss out on the opportunity to choose from the heart to meet each other's needs.
This week, notice when you have the impulse to defend by explaining, justifying, minimizing, or building a case. Choose one or more of the practice steps listed above. Interrupt your habit of defending and practice with one of the steps above. You could even ask the other person for a re-do after you have defended and try out one of these practices.