Of the many saboteurs of effective communication, defensiveness is one of the most destructive. When relationship partners react defensively with each other, they will be unable to hear any viewpoint but their own, feeling interrogated as if on a witness stand.
Kind and sensitive inquiry is not the same as interrogation. When the motive for challenging or asking more about any statement is genuine interest and a desire to learn more, it does not provoke a defensive reaction.
The motivation behind a phrase that activates defensiveness is typically the desire to win by undermining the other partner’s confidence. The motivation behind a genuine inquiry does the opposite. It makes the partner on the other end feel cared for, interesting, and welcome.
There are a number of common phrases that regularly activate defensiveness in most people, especially when accompanied by negative affect. And, although every relationship has its own unique defensiveness triggers, the following 10 tend to be universal.
If intimate partners could just eliminate these 10 phrases, they could instantly and measurably improve their communication.
There are two different categories for defensive-provoking statements. The first is comprised of the five typical queries heard in any interrogatory process. They begin with one of the following words: why, where, what, who, and how.
The second is comprised of the most common motivating drivers that routinely provoke defensiveness when used to undermine or invalidate the other partner’s reality.
The Interrogative Five
Why did you do that?
If I could eliminate the word “why” from intimate couple communication, I could end most defensive reactions from happening. That word should only be used if the person expressing it has a genuine interest in knowing the answer to a specific information question, like “Why do you love the color “green” so much?”
When that word predictably provokes a defense answer, it is because it is most often an accusation formed as a question:
“Why didn’t you take out the trash last night?” This means, “I’m upset with you that you didn’t do what you promised.”
“Why does your mother call you every night?” This means, “I think your mother is overly dependent on you.”
“Why are you coming home so late at night?” Ths is a challenging statement of suspicion that that person isn’t telling the truth.
What is going on?
If that question is meant as genuine inquiry, the person asking it would lead with some pre-context, “You’ve been so quiet lately. I’m concerned that you’re not okay. What’s going on?” The tone of voice is caring and tender.
If it is meant as a subtle way of gaining information for self-serving purposes, it will be more likely heard by the other partner as suspicious prying.
“What are you doing?” This phrase, especially if combined with irritation, usually is more likely to be a cover for: “I think you’re up to something that I might not like."
“What just happened?” The person asking that might be truly worried, but the body language and voice intonation can make it seem more like “You did something that I don’t like and you’re not being honest about it.”
Where have you been?
People often use this phrase when their partners are unusually late and have no legitimate excuse. Just think how different it would sound if they said, “You’re so late. I was genuinely worried. Are you okay?”
It is normal to be a little peeved when the other partner changes behavior without explanation. However, when an expression starts with “where,” and the tone accompanying it is overwrought or clearly distressed, the other person is likely going to respond defensively, i.e., “I was just doing errands.” Or, “Don’t you trust me?
“Where have you been? You’re an hour late.” An accusation/challenge, once again posed as a question but is actually a statement of underlying anger.
“Where is my stuff?” Asked as a true question of inquiry, it would come out more as: “Did you see the stuff that I left on the couch? Did you put it away somewhere for me?” But, if the tone is challenging and irritated, it will create a defensive response like, “I didn’t do anything with your stuff. Why are you always assuming I’ve done something wrong? I have no idea where it is. Maybe the cleaning lady put it somewhere?”
When were you going to tell me?
The word “when,” has to do with an expectation of one partner to be currently included in the experience of the other. Even when the news is positive, like “I’m pregnant,” the partner on the other end is still going to feel left out or not important enough if he or she is not included from the beginning.
“When did you find out that you might lose your job?” This will most likely be heard as: “You deliberately haven’t told me that. Why? Did you think I was going to be difficult or something? You never trust me.”
“When did you first meet that guy?” Reality check: “Are you seeing someone behind my back. How long has this been going on? Am I some kind of fool or something? Is there anything else I need to know that you aren’t sharing?”
How are you/we going to do this?
If your relationship is in good shape, this question would be ideal as a way of planning how to collaborate around solving a task. Or, asking how the budget might have to be tweaked to afford something unexpected. The tone is cooperative and concerned, and the body language is open and authentic.
But when a phrase starts with “how,” and is meant to be challenging, it can easily provoke a defensive response. That is especially true if it implies that the other partner has exhausted resources or expects something out of line.
“How will you be able to work part-time and get all your other things done?” If the partner asking this is challenging in tone and sounds threatened, he or she may really be saying: “I’m afraid that you’ll get caught up in something and not be there for me when I need you.”
“How can you be so calm when things are falling apart?” That statement can actually be a compliment when uttered with appreciation and affection. When it provokes a defensive response, it is usually not a compliment, but rather a challenge to the other’s capability or readiness to accomplish what he or she wants to do.
Category Two – The Five Drivers Behind Provocative Phrases
“If you keep reacting like you do when I try to get something across to you, we’re never going to get anywhere.”
“You’re just trying to avoid blame for what you know you did. You always do that.”
“I’m not going to keep talking to me if you won’t listen and just have to tell me that I’m wrong.”
“If you really cared, you’d never talk to me that way when I’m just trying to share my feelings.”
“Can’t you see that you always try to win by telling me where I’m wrong?”
“You’re acting exactly like your mother and you told me you hated being on the other end of her.”
“What makes you think that your argument is so great?
“You have no idea what you’re even talking about.”
“I don’t know how you can face yourself in the mirror when you’re so into yourself.”
“Aren’t you embarrassed when you keep saying the same stupid things over and over.”
“You know you sound really stupid right now.”
“It’s lucky no one else is here to listen to you. You’d be embarrassed.”
“I’m just trying to help you see things the right way.”
“Just try a little harder to listen. You can do it.”
“It seems like I always have to be the one who is wrong? Why do you always need to win?”
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Any of these 10 challenging phrases will predictably cause the partner on the other end to defend. If they happen often, they will eventually create “combat readiness” in both partners.
If intimate partners can, instead, state their preferences for the future rather than admonishing mistakes from the past, they will become more welcoming of future inquires. Couples who learn to avoid provoking defensiveness can expect their trust in each other to rapidly improve.