Has this happened to you lately? You’re talking with someone and they say something that you perceive as critical, a slight on your capabilities or character. You immediately start defending yourself by attacking the other person or their comments, and you both become upset.
When we feel threatened, even if non-physically, our automatic response is fight or flight. We want to strike back or even leave. Perceived verbal attacks can give rise to ongoing bad feelings, and often lead to conflict that can spiral out of control.
As is so often the case, the key is to pause for a moment and assess: Are you okay? Do you really need to defend yourself? Is there truly a threat? Sometimes we react more strongly than necessary because a chance remark hits a nerve or lands in an area where we feel insecure. It’s good to take a moment to determine whether there was ill-intent in the words, inept communication on the part of the other, or perhaps you just took it wrong. The best response would be different in each case.
It’s possible that there is some important information in the comments. Criticism, real or perceived, can lead to self-improvement, if we are open to looking at things from a different perspective. Not that we should change to adapt to everyone else’s opinion, but it may be wise to consider a tweak or two. Perhaps the way that we presented our ideas did not allow them to come across as we intended. To paraphrase the saying, we judge others on what they say and ourselves on what we intended to say. Allow yourself time to consider that you could learn something from the comments, without immediately striking out defensively and creating a hard line you have to continue to defend.
Sometimes it’s not what was said that triggers our defenses, but how or when the remark was made. For example, your partner or spouse may frequently remind you to put your breakfast dishes into the dishwasher before you go to work, rather than leaving them in the sink. You have no problem with that, but they tell you first thing in the morning, before your brain is functioning well, so you growl back or ignore them. Instead, later in the day, try asking them to wait to request changes to your behavior until after you’ve had your coffee and a shower.
Even in a situation where someone really is trying to needle you or get the upper hand, becoming defensive may not be your most effective response. For one thing, it depends on how much you care what this person thinks. If very little, it’s usually best to just let it go. Even at work, where the stakes can be high, the need to come out “on top” may best be served by letting the comments go by uncontested. By not responding, you stand a better chance of looking more mature than the co-worker who was only trying to get a rise out of you.
Whatever the setting, a knee-jerk reaction of being argumentative may not be the best way to respond. Try not rising to the bait. Meeting vaguely inflammatory remarks with poised silence or a polite comment can take the wind out of the sails of anyone trying to attack you.
As always when looking to avoid unnecessary conflict, it generally pays to take a moment and assess the situation before responding in a way that will escalate things. And don’t worry if you do over-react at times – do your best, pay attention to what happens, and remember what you learn for the next time.