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Feel Attacked? The Most Powerful Defense You'll Ever Have

In situations of conflict, what's the best question to ask yourself?

Pixabay Free Photo
Source: Pixabay Free Photo

Whenever someone turns on you, there’s one thing you can do that, almost immediately, will emotionally protect you. If that is, you can do it immediately. And this little recognized mode of self-defense should work whether your hair-trigger reaction is feeling hurt, guilty, devalued, distrusted, disrespected, rejected, offended, insulted—or whatever. But this remarkable defense—which isn’t really a “defense” at all—is extremely elusive. If you’re like most people, in the moment of psychological upset you’re far more likely to succumb to the urge either to directly defend yourself or to counterattack your “assailant.”

This post is about training yourself—right when you realize you’re beginning to lose your cool—to ask the question: “Before this person pushed my button, which one of their buttons might I have pushed?”

This instantaneously enables you to detach from your internal distress and refocus your attention on what’s going on outside yourself. If you can experience, say, the other's criticism or cutting remark as primarily reflecting something about them, your initial uneasiness, anger, or bad feelings about yourself will start to moderate. You're "taking in" what they said vs. "taking it on." And this only exacerbates the conflict between you.

Shifting from the role of reactive victim to an objective scientist, you’re actually training your brain to stay with the more adult, rational, part of your self and not to let the present affront undermine your better judgment. By depersonalizing the “drama” of the moment, you assert the authority to be the sole arbiter of your actions—rather than allowing the other person’s comments to revive any doubts you may still harbor about yourself. Obviously, if these old insecurities no longer existed, you wouldn't feel so threatened by their negative evaluation. Whenever you're attacked, this would be a perfect time to practice self-support and self-validation.

Odds are that the other person turned on you in the first place because what you said or did felt threatening to them. So endeavoring to grasp where they might be coming from can help you begin to formulate new insights into the psychological dynamic that motivated their likely “retaliatory” behavior. And there are questions you can ask them that—if asked in just the right way—might reveal why they were provoked—before, in turn, they turned on you.

Here's a concrete example to illustrate what such re-channeling of another’s verbal assault might look like. Mastering the art and logic of this method is likely to take considerable practice. Nevertheless, if you’re sufficiently patient in developing this advanced communication skill, the end result will probably reassure and surprise you.

The sample case below deals specifically with a couple. But the approach depicted could be adapted for use with one’s children, parents, employees, co-workers.

Frank glances at the latest credit card statement, which is much higher than usual, and blows up—angrily accusing his wife, Sue, of being a spendthrift and squandering the family’s resources. Ordinarily, Sue would get angry in return (her “I'm-not-being-trusted” button having been pushed) and protest that her purchases were neither arbitrary nor exorbitant. And that if Frank would take the time to carefully review the charges, he’d see that every single expenditure was justified—given that their three children have desperately needed new clothes, as well as supplies, for the upcoming school year.

Instead, however, Sue turns to Frank and says: “If you look at the charges on the bill, I think you’ll see they reflect expenses we’d already discussed—though I realize that, yes, they do strain our budget and that's got to be annoying. . . . But, frankly, I also wonder whether what’s really most annoying is that you can’t stop thinking about the fact that your company has been laying off people because of the bad economy we’re in. Just the other day you told me you were beginning to worry about your own position, whether you could be the next to go. Is this also coming up for you now? Do we maybe need to talk more about this? "

The next part of this retort is optional and ought to be considered only after your spouse has begun to cool off. Yet it could further modify Frank's blaming perspective, for it is empathic: “. . . and I’m thinking, too, about what you've told me in the past about your parents’ being so critical of you whenever you bought anything they thought you didn’t need to have. Did you maybe feel that I was being indulgent in a way that—had it been you—would definitely have made your parents come down on you like a ton of bricks? Could that be coming up for you, too? Almost needing to get mad at me to distance yourself from me, ‘cause what you thought I did running up the bill may remind you of how your parents always got on your case for spending too much money?"

Note that in this example, the wife simply doesn’t permit her husband’s anger to stay centered on her. On the contrary, she offers only a brief explanation of her credit card expenditure and then redirects the interaction to focus on him and which of his buttons might have gotten pushed when he eyed the statement’s bottom line (i.e., pressing his “I'm-financially-out-of-control-and-will-be-taken-to-task button).

As a result, the husband, ideally feeling understood and sympathized with, would be much less likely to continue in the same accusatory vein. In fact, he’s even being invited to ventilate more about his work-related anxieties—probably at the very core of his present upset and what he really needs to be talking about.

Remember, just because your partner is being emotionally reactive doesn't mean you have to be, too.

Hopefully, this single illustration will suggest the manifold benefits of responding to another’s provocation by immediately asking yourself which of their buttons, however unintentionally, you may have pushed. Might it be an “I-have-to-be-perfect” button (they can’t allow themselves to make a mistake, so you can’t either); an “everything-must-be-in-its-place” button (in growing up, parental approval pivoted on their being neat and orderly); an “I-can’t-take-risks” button (being daring and adventurous became linked to putting themselves in serious jeopardy); and so on.

To conclude, if you can get yourself to quickly change course in confrontational situations—and play "detective" rather than "defendant"—I think you’ll find that conflicts that previously were extremely upsetting to you are a lot easier to handle. This alternative approach can also offer you a truly intriguing challenge: one that can be as creative as it is constructive.

But, as a caveat, please note that this method will not work with everyone. People with serious anger problems—or with the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Denial, Refutation, or Stonewalling—may simply be unreachable. And that’s why, in certain cases, requesting a “Time Out” may be your only option. But in less extreme instances, the approach I’ve delineated should be more effective than what you may be doing now.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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