How many times have you promised yourself you’ll never behave like that again, only to find yourself reacting the same old way?
—Excuse me, why are you doing it that way?
—Jeez. Just because I’m not doing it your way doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
—That’s not what I said. No need to get all defensive.
—Me defensive? What about you.
And so on.
Even the most intelligent, educated people can get like this. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to acknowledge that you’re not quite the person you like to think. It seems childish. It upsets the self-image you like to maintain. You lose face, you feel bad and in an effort to avoid this unpleasant reality you look for somewhere else to pin the blame. Needless to say, no good comes of any of this.
Eventually you calm down, admit your mistake, apologize—and make new promises. No matter how contrite you may be however, you’ve done nothing yet to trigger real change. Defensiveness is an instinctive impulse towards a perceived threat. Your reaction’s unlikely to change until you see why it feels that way. What’s the threat exactly?
This is what mindfulness is for. I’m not speaking of mindfulness as a movement or a technique or an ancient teaching. I’m talking about the mental factor of mindfulness—the self-reflective way of seeing that gives you choices and opportunities other animals lack, that makes it possible to stop reactivity and be the person you want to be.
You don’t need to learn mindfulness; you already have it. It’s a natural mental factor. However, it can’t do much by itself. Only when it’s trained along with other mental factors such as effort, discernment and open-mindedness does it become an effective tool for long-term change.
And then you put it to work. Let’s revisit that conversation:
1) Pause, take a breath and get centered.
This first step is the hardest. You can’t just expect to be mindful when you need it, but with as little as ten minutes a day of meditation it becomes second nature. It leads you to a natural go-to place within yourself where you feel centered and see clearly. That sense of peace colors your day and guards you against reactivity.
—I like the way you’re doing that.
—Oh really? I learned from my dad. He taught me to do things right.
2) Don’t be surprised if your partner is defensive too. Use mindful listening. Try to clarify the situation rather than avoid, ignore or reject it.
—My dad was like that too. Only one way to do it!
—Well, I wouldn’t say that.
3) Show personal interest. Mindful watching helps you understand what the other person feels and needs at that moment.
—Really? You think there’s something to learn from other ways?
4) Spell it out. Come to an agreement that reactive emotions are not the way to communicate. Ask the other person to point out when you do it.
—How about this way, how I’ve always done it?
—Well that’s interesting too.
5) As you explain your own needs, watch out for any tendency to invalidate those of your partner. Remember, she or he is just as vulnerable as you.
—Thanks for your help.
—Well, thanks to you I’ve just learned something new.
The difference between these two conversations has nothing to do with being right or wrong. It’s about letting go of defensiveness and exploring the conversation open-heartedly.