In the previous blog I wrote about how most of us require a specific self-management practice in order to be effective in conflict engagements. But, being thoroughly non-defensive requires more than a self-management practice. It rests on an understanding of defensive reactivity that assigns to it a high level of personal responsibility. In this blog I offer one such understanding.
In my view, being reactively defensive frequently entails turning one’s back on a growth opportunity. It means defending the way we are, as opposed to growing into what we could become. Being overly defensive in conflict also means maintaining our current patterns of behaviour which is not necessarily a good thing.
Exploring responses to the following two questions can extend one’s capacity to understand the static nature of defensive responses.
Why do people respond defensively?
What are we defending?
Real answers to these questions are not easily forthcoming. When confronted with them people will often reply with, “Because he is wrong” or “I have to stand up for my principles”. Such responses may appear to answer the questions, but in actuality they don’t: If we think someone else is wrong, why does that lead us to defend ourselves? Why does having principles require defending them verbally? What ultimately are we defending and why?
We all have some notion of ourselves – something at our centre that is the core of what we are. Whatever that core is, it tends to be invested in how we view everything around us, as well as how we view ourselves. How we view and interpret everything around us can be called ‘worldview’; whereas the word ‘identity’ can indicate how we view ourselves. It is our investment in worldview and identity that I think requires examination and adjustment.
Worldview and identity may not be the core of who we are, but they are close to the core, and they are part and parcel with how we have constructed our core self. It is not surprising we are defensive if we are defending our very existence – our self. It is not surprising that the defense remains automatic and unconscious until we carefully examine it. Most of us unconsciously experience deviations to our worldview and identity as threats we have to defend.
Conflict is the pre-eminent confronter of the stability of our worldview and identity. The other person has his or her own worldview or identity and based on these, tells us that the way we interpret the issues should be different. They often tell us that we are to blame for what has transpired. They see it differently and want us to see it the way they do. Since the core of us is implicated, we naturally tend to react.
However, if we stand back a little from this picture, perhaps we can choose to have a different self, one that is productively defensive rather than reactively defensive. A defensiveness that can defend the integrity of the self, but allow it to grow rather than resist growth. Such a new way of being will require balance. If we change the self-that-we-are too quickly, we could break down and lose touch with reality or no longer know who we are.
On a practical level, development of worldview and identity will mean having a different attitude to the criticism, accusations, and outrageous things conflict partners say to us. It will mean placing more value on the negative things they have to say about us. It will mean recognizing there might be some truth in what they have to say.