You know that feeling when someone contradicts you, or says something you believe is wrong, or ignorant, or offensive?
If you pay close enough attention, you can literally feel it: your jaw tightens, your breath becomes more bated, your heart rate might go up, and you may crinkle your face, or tense your shoulders.
This is the physical manifestation of defensiveness.
This is a natural physiological response conditioned by thousands of years of evolution. Throughout human history when someone disagreed with us, we had to prepare our bodies for a fight.
Our brain then follows suit, and we figuratively “tense up” our stated position or opinion. We become more attached to it. We feel obliged to defend it.
Resist this urge.
Instead, be curious.
“Interesting, why do you think that is the case?”
“Fascinating. I don’t know many people who have that opinion. Can you tell me more about why you believe that, to help me understand?”
“That’s not what I believe, but hey, nobody is ever right 100% of the time, including me! What parts of your position do you think most people misunderstand?”
“Thanks for sharing that perspective with me. I think we both agree that everyone has the right to believe whatever they want, but I am curious - do you think it is the government’s role to make laws on this issue?”
“Wow, I actually haven’t met many people who have that opinion. That’s cool, I love talking to people who have different opinions than me. Do you mind if I ask you some questions about your position to help me understand where you’re coming from?”
Curiosity is magic. It disarms people and instantly defuses tense situations.
Curiosity creates space for discovery and connection by building a mutual foundation of respect and collaboration.
Curiosity allows us to understand, even when we disagree.
So next time you find yourself at odds with someone, pay attention to your reaction. First: recognize your instinct toward defensiveness. Then: take a breath, let it go and get curious.
You might be surprised how fun it is.
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