Here’s a common conflict scenario: Someone’s talking with us and they say something that we perceive as critical, a slight on our capabilities or character. We immediately start defending ourselves by attacking the other person or their comments, and everyone becomes upset.

When we feel threatened, even if non-physically, our automatic response is fight or flight. We feel defensive. We want to strike back or leave. Perceived verbal attacks can give rise to ongoing bad feelings and make it difficult to get along.

So, how do we lessen our defensiveness? The key is to pause for a moment and assess:  Are we okay? Do we really need to defend ourselves? It’s good to take a moment to determine whether there was ill-intent in the words. Perhaps the way that the other person presented their ideas did not allow the message to come across as they intended. We judge others on what they say and ourselves on what we mean.

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. We can allow ourselves time to consider whether we could learn something from the comments, without immediately striking out defensively and creating a hard line we then have to continue to defend.

Maybe it’s not what is said that triggers our defenses, but how the remark is made. For example, our spouse may tersely remind us (for the third time this week) that we agreed to put our breakfast dishes into the dishwasher before we go to work, and we lash out in response to the tone. We need to stop and ask ourselves, “Has our spouse threatened us?”. The answer will be no. We just don’t like the idea that we’re being reminded that we are not living up to our own agreements.

Even in a situation where someone really is trying to needle us, becoming defensive may not be our most effective response. At work, our interests may best be served by letting the comments go by uncontested. We sometimes want to react more strongly than necessary because a chance remark hits a nerve or lands in an area where we feel insecure. By not responding, even if we feel threatened inside, we appear more mature than the co-worker who was trying to get a rise out of us.

The issue may be even bigger, where we feel our good character is being called into question. A very current example is talking about racism. Given the history of our country, discussions of race are guaranteed to bring up deep discomfort. Those of us who are white can also get very defensive about exploring our own role in racism, however unintentional. We have been taught that racists are evil people, like the Nazis or slave owners, not someone like us who has good intentions. If someone calls out something we say as racist, we can immediately feel that we are being called a bad person.

But, wait. Let’s take a deep breath. What did they actually say? Maybe it was just that a common phrase we used has its roots in promoting racism. Is there something for us to learn in their comments? By listening, perhaps we can acknowledge that we were unaware of the effect of using a given phrase. We may not have intended harm, but the impact of our words was hurtful. By calming down and reminding ourselves that we are only uncomfortable, not in danger, we can change our language to more closely reflect our intentions. Of course, racism and its presence today is a huge topic for lifelong learning, but a good first step is to relax our defenses a bit and allow the conversation to begin.

Regardless of the issue, massive or small, knee-jerk defensiveness will create more conflict. When we slow down and assess the real level of the threat and change our response accordingly, we will get along better.