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How To Disagree Without Making Someone Defensive

How To Make Someone Less Defensive

Michele B |

Asking someone why they are getting so defensive during a disagreement rarely helps the situation. In fact, it often makes things worse. It’s natural to want to defend yourself if you feel your beliefs are being threatened. However, it’s possible to have a conversation in which you don’t agree and not cause the other person to become defensive, according to Shelby Scarbrough, former international and U.S. Department of State Protocol Officer and author of Civility Rules! Creating a Purposeful Practice of Civility.

“Something we can’t control is somebody else’s reaction or behavior,” she says. “Therefore, what we bring to the table is the most important thing. If everybody came to the table with that concept wanting to be civil and have a civil conversation, the world would be a lovely place.”

While Scarbrough admits not everybody enters a conversation wanting to be civil, there are things we can proactively do to help avoid a defensive reaction.

Watch your language
First, avoid using accusatory terminology, such as “you should,” or shaming or blaming the other person.

“It’s a surefire way for them to come back with a response that’s defensive or angry if they are sensitive at all about their position on something,” says Scarbrough. “Somebody who’s extremely comfortable and confident in their own position often is not defensive because they don’t need to be. They can have a conversation about any topic and not worry about it’s not a personal slight.”

Focus on your experience
Next, avoid telling someone what to do and giving advice.

“If we want to engage with somebody in a deeper, meaningful level, it’s not about us getting out our views,” she says. “That’s where we kind of go wrong in society these days. We’re so hell bent on getting our own opinion out there and putting it out there as truth or fact rather than realizing that it is a perspective and that there are other perspectives.”

Instead, share your experience. There is a distinction between your opinion and your experience, says Scarbrough. “Your opinion is your beliefs,” she says. “In theory, it’s based on your experience, but when you simply share your opinion, you don’t show your experience behind it.”

Sharing your experience illustrates how you’ve come to your view. Start your sentence with, “This has been my experience.” Be willing to be vulnerable and open to push back, says Scarbrough.

“The person might say, ‘Yeah, but’ and that’s okay,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you have to get defensive, too. You can say, ‘I can see this is this is hitting a nerve and that’s not my purpose. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I would I’d really like to have a conversation about this. And if it’s uncomfortable for you, we don’t have to talk about it.’ That can help calm the situation, so the other person feels safe.”

Check your motive
Ask yourself, do you want to have a conversation about something or do you just want an opportunity to push your position. If it’s the latter, it’s usually a good way to cause someone to get defensive, which creates a dead-end conversation.

If you want to have a conversation, enter it with open-ended curiosity. Scarbrough suggests saying, “Tell me more about that. I’d like to understand your views.”

“You don’t have to agree, but coming to a conversation with a perspective of humility will help open a conversation and get the other person to share their views,” she says. “We can keep the conversation at a level of interest. It doesn’t have to get angry. It doesn’t have to be nasty.”

You can’t prevent someone from being defensive, but changing how you enter a conversation can help, Scarbrough says. “Who am I to say that you should believe one thing or another? That’s pretty arrogant of me,” she says. “Instead, do your best to come to the conversation with humility and grace, and openness and curiosity and generosity of spirit. And if we do that, we have a lot less chances of having a response that is defensive. Intent is half the battle.”

Original article by Stephanie Vozza appears on Fast Company
Photo courtesy of Samantha Hurley / Burst

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