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Peace in Ourselves: Unlearning Defensiveness

Updated: Jul 8

For years on my commute to and from work, I drove past a building on North Avenue and 6th Street in Milwaukee with big text signs that say, "PEACE IN OURSELF" and "PEACE IN OUR CITY." To me, it always seemed like a very bold claim. When we hear so many stories about war and violence, can peace really be that simple?

Those signs are on my mind more and more, as many of the people I've found to be most skilled in motivating and inspiring others to act peacefully have done a lot of work on themselves-- to be more peaceful in how they think, act and react. Even if it's not quite that simple, maybe that is where we need to start.

It's an empowering realization, because changing ourself is always within our control. We don't need permission. We have full authority. And, we have opportunities every day to practice and improve, in every interaction and conversation we have.

How do we better cultivate peace in ourselves? I've been reflecting a lot recently on some of the traits/behaviors I can find myself slipping into when I'm feeling stressed or otherwise operating on 'autopilot' that can make for less than peaceful interactions with others. My hope is that if I can learn to better catch myself in a pattern, I can get better at interrupting it to be able to act or react in a way that is more helpful, positive and peaceful.

So, in that spirit, as I write them - I'll share my reflections on things I'm working on. With each behavior, I'll organize around how I'll be able to catch myself in the behavior, why I'm likely to slip into it and what I should do instead.

This first week, I'll start with one of my least favorite behaviors -- Defensiveness.

Defensiveness makes you interpret another person's feedback as an attack. It closes you to connecting, listening and learning. While in the worst case you might 'protect' yourself from bad advice, more often defensiveness prevents you from being able to take in information that can help you and can make you seem closed to outside ideas, unconcerned about others' feelings and rigid in your perspective.

How does it show up?

  • Feeling compelled to respond and negate what I'm being told

  • More likely to get louder in my responses, interrupt

  • Less likely to be asking questions or paraphrasing what I've heard

Why does it show up? What do I really want?

  • Overinvested in the outcome/situation - Feeling that the feedback or criticism I'm receiving is personal to me.

  • Desire to be understood - Feeling that the person I'm talking to has a different understanding of my plans or goals that I feel I need to correct.

  • Desire for recognition or appreciation - Feeling that the work and time I've invested in something is being taken for granted.

  • Desire for control - Feeling that the situation is going toward a goal or outcome that I don't want and I want to steer it another way.

What should I do instead?

  • Acknowledge what I heard - I can't remember a time I've changed someone's mind by outright disagreeing with something that they've shared. A better strategy is to start by rephrasing what I heard.

  • Clarify and ensure I understand what I'm hearing - Asking questions to be sure I really understand what they mean can help ensure I understand better how they see the situation or task, and understand specifically what is concerning them.

  • Share how I feel - I've found I have a tendency to get defensive when I have a feeling about the situation that I haven't shared. Saying what is unsaid -- acknowledging that I feel confused or frustrated, for example, can often open up a whole different conversation.

  • Listen - In these situations, I find I have to really be intentional about listening, because it's much easier to focus on the points I want to make.

  • Ask for help if I need it - Another pattern I've seen in myself is that I have had a tendency to get defensive when something feels outside of my scope; that I've been stretching to make something work when I don't have the right expertise or enough bandwidth. This is the time to ask for and embrace help!

  • Take a Break - The best prescription for depersonalizing is to have some space between me and the situation/project. Time and space always helps me gain the perspective on its true level of importance. (And with that perspective, it's usually much lower than I would have ranked it in the moment.)

One closing thought -- in the rare case someone is intentionally 'attacking', it's helpful to remember there's probably no rebuttal that will satisfy them. And, more likely, any response will provoke them further, so a simple thank you is the best response. Taylor Swift has shared some great advice on this that's helpful to remember, "Your nemeses / Will defeat themselves before you get a chance to swing."

Cheers to the first one done! If you've been successful before in shifting your perspective and becoming less defensive -- please share the best practices that have worked for you!

Update: I'll continue to link the other posts I've made here:


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