by Claudia Gray, MA, LPC

On many levels, it is a really good thing to know how to defend ourselves. However, too much of a good thing can get in our way and make life harder and less joyful. When we are defensive, we reduce our opportunities to communicate effectively, impede our relationships, and inhibit our own personal growth.

How to know when you’re being defensive:

  • Are you planning your rebuttal while someone else is talking?
  • Do you ever hear yourself say “Yes…but”?
  • Are you the person who always has to have THE LAST word?

Our defenses show up when we feel scared or threatened. We often stop listening and go on the attack. For this reason, it is important to know when you are physically and emotionally in this state of being. You may feel angry, hurt, or backed into a corner. The key is to take a few deep breaths and become an active listener. An active listener is the person everyone else thinks is charismatic.

10 things you need to know about active listening:

1. If you’re face to face with another person, make eye contact. No, don’t stare them down, but look thoughtfully into their eyes. If you’re communicating on the phone or via social media, focus your full attention on the conversation without doing the dishes at the same time.

2. Manage your emotions. Know when you’re becoming defensive and thinking of a rebuttal. An irresistible rebuttal means you have stopped listening.

3. Listen to understand what the other person is saying, not what you think you hear them saying. Restate or paraphrase what you think you heard and ask the person if you got it right.

4. Reflect back the other person’s emotion by saying “This seems really important to you…” or “I’m sensing you are feeling…”

5. Give feedback. Share your observations, insights, and your experiences.

6. Practice validation skills. Acknowledge the speaker’s problem or issue. Respond with empathy by putting yourself in her or his shoes.

7. Practice using “I” statements. “I appreciate your willingness to talk with me about this…” or “I am feeling…because…”

8. Probe by asking thoughtful questions, such as “What does this mean to you?”

9. Briefly restate the facts or parts of the problem to check for understanding.

10. Remember…sometimes silence can be golden. Make space for comfortable pauses. Allow time for thoughtful reflection. Slow things down to de-escalate distressful emotions. Pick back up with a respectful statement such as “May I suggest something?” or “Let’s talk about solutions.”

Active listening is a skill that takes practice. Remember to use your EQ (Emotional Intelligence) to know when you’re becoming defensive, take 5 deep breaths or use the time honored anger management strategy of ‘counting to 10’ to remind yourself of the 10 ways to actively listen.

Claudia Gray, MA, LPC is a therapist who works with adults both as individuals and couples. One of her areas of expertise is working with the GLBTQ community. In addition to her private practice she is also an Intake Counselor at Maria Droste Counseling Center.