By self-management I mean a highly practical and essential nuts-and-bolts practice that allows us to manage the defensive reactions we have in conflict interactions.
When we are criticized or attacked we tend to reflexively defend ourselves. In order to be effective in conflict we have to be able to manage those reactions. Rather than act out a defensive reaction; as in, “You don’t have enough information to make that assessment,” we have to silently moderate defensiveness and then act intentionally in a manner that serves the circumstances better: “Tell me about how you reached that assessment?”
A system of self-management I teach assigns to it three components:
1) Notice the reaction silently, “I am getting triggered because she thinks I am irresponsible.”
2) Put attention on the physical body; for example, feel the sensation accompanying the emotion, or take a deep breath, or feel your feet on the ground – whatever helps to dissipate the physiological aspect of your defensive emotional reactivity.
3) Coach yourself with silent self-talk, “I need to listen. She is angry because she feels threatened, not because she wants to make my life difficult. It will take some time, work at understanding how she experiences the situation.”
Self-management doesn’t develop automatically from reading about it in this blog, or anywhere else. It requires some conscious practice. If you don’t have a well-developed ability to self-manage then I encourage you to grow one. You can begin to do this by writing down your own version of the three steps outlined in the paragraph above. Next comes trying it out.
I learned the following exercise from Stacey Holloway in Vancouver many years ago. Have one of your friends mock you in role, accusing you of failings for which you have a genuine sensitivity. For instance, working with me, someone could be effectively begin with, “You are an environmental hypocrite…” Even though not sincere criticism and attack, I find that this role-playing creates enough opportunity to practice managing defensiveness. There is no need for you to say anything when you practice, just silently run through the three steps as you are being criticized by your practice partner.
You can also practice the three steps in repeated mundane circumstances; for example, every time you stop at a red light when you are driving: notice reaction, tend to body, self-talk. It only takes a few seconds. By practicing you create a habit, and then when you are challenged in conflict dynamics you will find that you can call up the practice and be empowered to self-manage. This will greatly increase the likelihood of you acting in a manner that serves your interests.
I must add here that I think defensiveness is natural and not bad. It is how we work with our defensiveness that is critical
I can think of at least three healthy defensive responses. Firstly, we need to defend ourselves internally from injury to our dignity and self-esteem. The helpful defending against criticism I am referring to here does not require saying anything. It is a silent internal defense. In fact, I think the behaviour of defending oneself verbally often indicates a weak internal ability to defend the integrity of one’s self. For example, someone who defensively states, “You are wrong, I am not dishonest,” is likely to have some lack of inner strength related to honesty.
A second healthy type of defensiveness is the use of assertive communication in response to aggression or highly disrespectful communication; for example, “When you call me an ‘idiot’ I may not listen, tell me what you think I did without using that word.”
Thirdly, there are defensive maneuvers that may be required to avoid threats to physical safety.
The problem is that, in most conflict interactions, we tend to over-react and over-defend, which can result in a chain of reactivity that escalates conflict interactions into unproductive exchanges. So, develop a self-management habit! As one of my learned colleagues Gordon Sloan has said, “It only takes one to tango” – either person can turn an unproductive argument into a more productive discussion by managing defensiveness.
This blog and the next will lead to a second look at the identity quake that I wrote about in the previous blog. There is an inward pathway that leads to working with one’s identity. Self-management can be viewed as the first step along that pathway.