It can be quite difficult to see another person’s perspective on an issue when you feel they are attacking you personally. Conflicts encourage us to feel defensive and defensiveness makes it very difficult to understand another person’s perspective. So how can you fight against defensiveness when it feels like you need to defend yourself?
One of the common bits of pop psychology advice that has been used over the years is to ask yourself what advice you would give a friend if that friend had the same problem with which you are currently struggling. Since it is easier to solve someone else’s problem, thinking of your situation as objectively as possible (pretending it is someone else’s problem) can help to separate out intense feelings that get in the way of practical solutions. When we are directly involved in a crisis, our emotions significantly impact our decision making and perspective-taking abilities. This is why surgeons are not allowed to operate on their own children and jurors cannot be objective if their loved one is the defendant.
But having the luxury to step back and rethink your situation is not always possible. Many times you need to respond in the moment, while the other person is speaking to you directly. Especially in these situations, using a visualization technique can be quite helpful. If the interaction feels like the other person is attacking you (like this), you will naturally feel defensive. That in turn will make it much more difficult to feel safe and to help the other person. Try imagining that the person is talking with you (as if they are complaining or speaking passionately about something off in the distance that you both can see and comment on, like this).
Picturing yourself shoulder to shoulder with the other person can help you feel like an objective observer, you feel less defensive, and you feel better suited to listen and identify with the other person without feeling attacked. This takes practice, because it is not natural for us to do this, but it can free you up from feeling like you need to defend yourself or justify the situation.
Shawn Healy, PhD