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Communication: Defensive Listening

"The first goal in human communication is to be understood, to stir up a meaning in the receiver that is as close as possible to the meaning the sender intended when he or she sent the message in the first place." Robert G. King

Sometimes the message we intend to communicate to our listener is not correctly received, understood, remembered, and evaluated. Therefore, the feedback from the listener is defensive. Defensive listening negatively affects otherwise healthy communication. When we apply defensive listening to the speaker's message, the intent of the communication is lost.

What is defensive listening?

The listener interprets the speaker's innocent comment as a personal attack. For example, a friend invites another to dinner on Saturday, and the friend responds, "I'm not available on Saturday; what about Sunday?" The friend extending the invitation hears, "I have more important things to do than go to dinner with you on Saturday."

I mediated a dispute between two friends. At first, I thought the argument was innocuous, and the parties would resolve the conflict once each person had an opportunity to express themselves. Second, I quickly realized there were so many layers to the dispute, and the quick resolution I had anticipated was not forthcoming. Third, I realized the involved parties were applying defensive listening.

I was a neutral party. Still, I assessed early the dispute is innocuous at best, which raises the question of whether our prejudgment influences our interpretation of the topic of discussion. Thankfully my role was to maintain decorum and not provide feedback.

Before we got started, we agreed on a few rules of engagement, with one of the rules being one person speaking at a time. We started well, and yes, there were intermittent interruptions because one person spoke longer than agreed, hearing responses as personal attacks, or one or both parties jumped to a conclusion about what they heard. So, we had to take breaks to deal with the growing frustration and reset to keep the conversation on track.

Observing and processing what is meant by defensive listening, if you weren't familiar with the term, you might have experienced or applied it to something you heard from a speaker. It is an excellent idea to think of defensive listening in the context it occurs, the triggers, and the warning signs for using this listening style.

To manage defensive listening, practice:

  • Giving the speaker your undivided attention

  • Separate your assumptions and inferences from what you hear and observe from the speaker.

  • If you are unclear about the speaker's central idea, ask the speaker to clarify their main point.

  • Be aware of how your biases influence your listening style.

  • Recognize the effect of your emotions on how you listen and the meanings you attached to what you hear.

When you interact with a defensive listener, you mustn't personalize the listeners' reaction. I don't suppose I would be speculating to say listening is crucial to effective communication. I don't know how well we listen to what is said or what we hear. However, there's little doubt listening improves comprehension of the speaker's intent, and effective listening is an important skill to develop.

When responding to a defensive listener:

  • Stick to the facts

  • Use "I" statements to express your thoughts and not your attributions to the listener.

  • Do not mirror the defensive behaviors

  • Defensive listening is likely a defense mechanism

  • Respect the other person's opinion; saying "you're wrong" is cause for defensive behaviors or listening.

  • Begin the conversation in a friendly way.

  • Our statements can make the other person defensive if we begin a conversation by finding faults.

  • It is helpful to start the talk with successes to minimize defensiveness, gradually introduce the concern, and ask for the person's thoughts on the matter?

  • Invite the other person to participate in the discussion to minimize feelings of being scolded.

  • Be mindful you cannot realistically win an argument, but an amicable solution is possible.

People don't also live by logic. Therefore efforts to win an argument leading to an unhealthy back and forth that changes the dynamics of the conversation and diverts from the original intent of the conversation can trigger angry reactions and reignite old resentments that further complicate the discussion. So be mindful of how you structure your communication to reduce miscommunication and misunderstanding resulting in defensive listening. Remember being passionate about a topic is not an excuse to communicate poorly.

Thanks for reading this post.

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1 Comment

Feb 07, 2022

I think your friend's response would sounds better if he didn't put "I" right at the beginning of the sentence. How about "Saturday probably won't work for me, how about Sunday? " I also feel annoyed by hearing my coworker says something like "I need you to (do something)". ----Excuse me? Who are you anyway? I think it would sound less offensive if my coworker says "Can you/ would you mind...?"

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