Non-Defensive Communication: A Mindset, A Skill Set, and a Practice

Non-defensive communication is a way to have difficult conversations without perceiving the other person as an opponent, or interpreting their comments as an attack.

Very often, we do the opposite. When someone comes to us with a problem that involves us, we may become defensive, worried that we will be criticized, judged, or asked for something we don’t want to give. Under pressure, we become more self-focused, turning less of our attention toward what the other person is saying and more of our attention toward our own discomfort and to what we want to say next. We listen less and talk more, perhaps mounting a counter-attack by justifying our actions, blaming the other person, or trying to convince them we are right. Or we may just become passive aggressive.

The problem is that these approaches often leave both parties feeling agitated, misunderstood, or resentful. Meanwhile, the problem itself becomes distorted by the tension, and often goes unresolved.

A Non-Defensive Mindset

In contrast, communicating non-defensively means approaching the other person with a mind of curiosity, compassion, and a willingness to help them solve their problem. But this is easier said than done. Particularly when we are flooded with defensive thoughts and unpleasant feelings, it can be very difficult to look at things from another person’s point of view and relate to their discomfort. But we should try, because over time we will have more meaningful experiences that will make ourselves and other people happier.

Ironically, one of the most helpful things we can do to become more compassionate and generous toward others during difficult conversations is to recognize, right from the start, that whatever the other person is describing is entirely their own problem. It’s their story of the way things are, seen from their point of view, and we need to let them tell it the way they see it. There is no need to fight them on it, because there is really nothing there to fight: it's just a story. We don't have to feel that their story is "true" (or "not true"): we just have to acknowledge that it's how things look from their side. The more we can realize this, the less defensive we will become, and the easier it will be to understand their point of view without taking it personally.

Now, a word of caution: just because the problem is their story does not mean that it isn’t real, nor does it mean that we should dismiss it as meaningless or unimportant. In fact, the opposite is true: when we can see the problem as a story, then we can take it seriously without taking it personally. We can develop compassion for the person and gain insight into their problem, while seeing our own role in their story as somewhat like a fictional character. Whatever they may say about us, we can think "Ah, I can see how that character would be a problem for this person," without getting stuck on thoughts like "Hey, that's not true!" This way of apprehending another person's communication is not always intuitive. Fortunately, there are a number of skills we can practice to help us develop a non-defensive mindset.

Non-Defensive Communication Skill Set

We can break the habit of defensive communication by practicing these non-defensive behaviors. It often helps to first try these skills out during ordinary conversations, to get the hang of them in a low-pressure environment. 

1.       Monitor your mental spotlight: Remember that you are not the topic, the other person’s problem is the topic. When you notice that you have shifted the spotlight onto yourself ("this is about me"), take a breath and move the spotlight back to them. Becoming overly self-focused is the first step toward defensive communication.

2.       Pay attention: Show that you are listening by focusing on the speaker. Monitor any thoughts and feelings that may pull your attention away, and when you notice them, set them aside. Sometimes these feelings can be quite strong; just do your best.

3.       Generate compassion: Put yourself in their shoes. They just want to be happy, as we all do. However unskillfully they may be speaking, they are probably doing the best they can.

4.       Defer judgment: Allow them to make all their points before you ask clarifying questions, and wait until you have fully understood them before you finalize your understanding of the issue.

5.       Provide feedback: By paraphrasing what you’ve heard, you give the other person a chance to correct any misunderstandings. Ask clarifying questions when needed, but don’t interrogate.

6.       Offer to help: Instead of trying to solve the problem your way, it is often more effective simply to ask, “What can I do to help?” Then listen carefully with a non-defensive mind.

7.       Respond with kindness: Tell the person the truth about what you think, how you feel, and what you can offer them. Be kind, making sure your statements describe you and not them (“I” statements). If you abstain from blame, the person will be more likely to respond in kind.

8.       Disengage if needed: Sometimes, for any number of reasons, it’s just too much for us to have a productive conversation. If the alternative is a defensive encounter, don’t force it. Respectfully ask for some time to consider the issue on your own and set a time to reengage.

Practicing Non-Defensive Communication

Once we have become familiar enough with these skills to practice them during more challenging discussions, we can use the following contemplation and determination to help us maintain our non-defensive mindset.

Whenever we find ourselves beginning to have a difficult conversation where we may become defensive (it's easier if we catch it early in the communication), we can think:

This person is having a problem. In order to help them, I will listen carefully until I am certain that I have understood their problem. Then I will ask what I can do to help. Whether or not I am ultimately able to help them, I will nevertheless keep my attention on them and their problem rather than on myself and my reactions. I am not the problem, but I can be part of the solution. 

Then, we focus our attention on the other person, imagining that we are holding a mental spotlight on the person to help us remember that we are not the problem. As we listen, we generate and hold a mind of curiosity, kindness, and compassion toward them, as best we can. Whenever we become self-focused or defensive, we repeat the contemplation and refocus our attention on the other person.



I want to thank Sally Phillips who recently gave a seminar on non-defensive communication at WPS, which inspired this post. Sally is the owner of Upside Strategies.


Further Reading…

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Patterson & Grenny (book)

Don’t Get Defensive: Communication Tips for the Vigilant by Mark Goulston, MD (HBR post)

Powerful Non-Defensive-Communication by Sharon Ellison, M.S. (a worksheet)