We all experience times when someone we love says or does something that hurts us to one degree or another. In the wake of these painful moments we may regret how we handled ourselves. Unfortunately in such circumstances, the instinctive human reaction to the pain is fight or flight. So when we don’t feel safe we tend to become defensive.

Once defensiveness takes over it can feel impossible to stop our anger, blame and resentment long enough to ask ourselves what part of the experience– we are responsible for. Learning to overcome this instinctive mandate is not easy. If it were, most of us would have already done so since it is impossible to be defensive and feel good at the same time.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when the food bell rings, our defensive reaction to real or perceived threats can happen automatically even in the absence of any intentional attack. This scenario plays out between people all the time. After too many of these experiences neither of you feels safe.

Once you start tiptoeing around each other to avoid being hurt again, this chronic guardedness places a wall between the two of you. Then the open-hearted, open-minded, intimate feeling we all want – the one you thought you had found – is gone. Feeling understood, appreciated and respected is what you want – right?

If the disappointing pattern of never feeling satisfied about how you are treated in your relationships is ever going to change, the place to begin is with a genuine willingness to look at yourself with scrupulous honesty. And since we see ourselves through a subjective lens the source of objective information must come from someone we have a relationship with. The willingness to do this is essential if we really want to learn how to become more interpersonally mature.

Therefore the essential practice which leads to better communication is being more responsible for our part in taking good and responsible care of each moment we are in together. This is accomplished by observing our own experiences while we are having them. It’s like an imaginary you has floated up above the scene you are in, directing you to remain calm. In moments when things tense up, your personal observer reminds you not to over-react and to be careful not to slip into a defended or judgmental posture. To reiterate – achieving better communication requires us to identify and own our tendencies for unhealthy behavior first and to remain consistently responsible about it.

If you are experiencing communication problems in any of your important relationships, please know that in-between every negative stimulus and any kind of negative/defensive reaction to it, is your opportunity to respond maturely. Used in this way these painful moments can be life-changing!

So the next time you see yourself tensing up, ready to over-react defensively – in that precise moment – “STOP!” Take a moment or three. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Remind yourself to “RELAX!” You can return to the issue that started the defensive reaction once you’re more relaxed. Relaxing is more important!

It will help to de-intensify the moment and with your hurt feelings on hold, ask yourself two important questions. First: What are you responsible for in the unfortunate moment you were both just in? And equally important: Is it possible that what you heard could have been meant in any other way than the way you interpreted it? The answer to that key question is always a yes, so don’t ass/u/me. Ask!

Practicing this will provide a greater sense of personal power and freedom! Gratitude for what others bring into our lives is essential to a sense of well-being and as I have said before “To Love Is To Give!” Better communication is just a few good choices away.

Image from Flikr under Creative Commons license.

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  1. Linda March 23, 2012 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    This is so true. I’ve practiced “STOP”, take a deep breath and relax…not getting drawn into an argument. It feels amazing knowing I CAN control how I handle situations and that by NOT reacting, the power of the argument is gone. It takes 2 to argue.

  2. Catherine April 12, 2012 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    I agree with this blog essay and with what Linda describes above. Practicing this method can become habit forming, which enables freedom. It’s power over your mind that can break the former unhealthy habits that leave one feeling defensive and trapped.

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