Bend Marriage Counselor: ATTUNEment in Relationships Part 5—Non-defensive Responding

July 17, 2014 by

Responding well to criticism can be tough, especially when you feel like it’s a personal attack—and it’s coming from your partner. Your instinct might be to defensively lash out with a counter-criticism of your partner, but all this will do is escalate the problem and damage the trust the two of you have built in your relationship. Instead, you should practice non-defensive responding.

Non-defensive responding is the fifth step of ATTUNE, an anagram that marriage expert Dr. John Gottman uses to describe the process of building trust in relationships. In the first four parts of this series, I’ve discussed Awareness, Turning Toward, Tolerance, and Understanding, and in the final post of the series, I’ll talk about Empathy. First, however, I have to get to this week’s topic: responding to conflict in a way that strengthens your relationship.

Turn Conflict into Opportunity for Growth with Non-defensive Responding

Imagine that your partner asked you to pick up dinner after work, but you forgot about this request during your stressful day and arrived home empty-handed. Your partner sees that you forgot to get food and says something like, “I specifically asked you to grab dinner! You never listen.” There are two basic ways to respond: defensively or non-defensively. A DEFENSIVE response might include:

  • A counter-criticism (e.g. “You should have reminded me!”)
  • An excuse (e.g. “I had a lot on my mind at work, how could you expect me to remember dinner?”)
  • A denial of responsibility (e.g. “It shouldn’t just be on me to remember dinner”)
  • Negative body language (e.g. crossed arms, lack of eye contact, shifting or fidgeting)

When you respond defensively, you send the message that your partner’s criticism isn’t valid. You shut your partner out, making successful communication impossible. If, on the other hand, you respond in a non-defensive manner, you acknowledge that your partner has a right to their emotions (even if you don’t 100% agree with the criticism) and work towards a solution. A NON-DEFENSIVE response for the above scenario might look something like this:

  • Reiterate the criticism to make sure you understand it (e.g. “It sounds like you’re upset because you feel like I don’t always listen”)
  • Recognize the truth in the criticism, even if you don’t agree with the entire statement (e.g. “You’re right; I should have paid more attention when you asked me to pick up dinner, and when you make requests in general.”)
  • Validate your partner’s emotions (e.g. “I can understand why you’re upset”)
  • Contribute a solution or a compromise (e.g. “Next time you make a request like this, I’ll listen closely and make myself a note so I don’t forget”)

Learning to respond in a respectful way—even if you’re in the middle of a heated argument—will help both you and your partner learn to communicate more effectively and build a healthy relationship. And remember, if you need more help learning how to successfully navigate conflicts, you can always make an appointment with a Bend marriage counselor.