I rarely admit this (and frankly, I wonder why I’m doing it now), but I am a very defensive person. I can be quick to feel challenged or threatened by perceived criticism. When that happens, my typical responses range from somewhat testy to downright hostile. It’s not an attractive quality. I’m not proud.
I have wanted to do something about it for a long time, but I figured that in order to stop being so defensive, I’d have to do something drastic, like stop caring about what other people think.
That sounds great, but it’s an awfully tall order for most of us, and not a realistic option for me.
Thanks to a recent set of studies of defensiveness, I now have a far more practical strategy for dealing with my defensive tendencies. When I suspect criticism may be coming my way (for instance, when I send my editor a new chapter for feedback, or when my husband comes home from work to find that I’ve redecorated the bedroom), I take a moment to reflect on something I really like about myself.
I remind myself that I am exceptionally well-organized, that I am a sympathetic listener, that I make a killer baguette, or that I’m fun to have around at parties. This is called self-affirmation, and it can take many forms. Usually, we self-affirm through thinking, talking, or writing about our most important values, skills, or characteristics. We do it when we reflect on our past successes, and the lessons we have learned. And when we do, we provide a boost to our sense of self-esteem, and a buffer against any incoming threats.
It turns out that these simple reminders of our own self-worth and integrity significantly reduce our tendency to respond to negative feedback with defensiveness. Instead, we are able to see what may be valuable in the criticism we receive, without feeling the need to prove ourselves right at all costs.
One important drawback to using this strategy, though, is that it is effective only when you self-affirm before you start responding to the criticism—in other words, before you start feeling and acting defensive. If someone criticizes you and you start feeling hot under your collar, stopping to think about your own good qualities is unlikely to help calm you down. The trick is to self-affirm before the feedback, and that isn’t always possible, especially when criticism comes as a surprise.
On the other hand, if you know someone who tends to get defensive, this is a great technique to use to make sure your criticism is well received. Before you criticize, start out with an affirmation, as in “You really have an eye for color, and I like what you did with the furniture. Though I’m not really crazy about the new bedspread.” By starting with an acknowledgement of what you do like, you are far more likely to avoid getting anyone’s defenses up, and increase your chances of having a reasonable, hostility-free discussion. Either way, you are probably stuck with the bedspread.
Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is a motivational psychologist and the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. Her newest book is Succeed: How We Can All Reach Our Goals.