"When people are being defensive, they aren’t just defending their position, they are defending their judgement… they are defending themselves!"
~ Bill Crawford

“When people are being defensive, they aren’t just defending their position, they are defending their judgement… they are defending themselves!”
~ Bill Crawford

The Neuroscience of Defensiveness & Conflict Resolution

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone, discussing what you thought were the pros and cons of some issue, only to have the other person become defensive, and either shut down or lash out in a way that seemed out of proportion to the subject at hand?

I’m sure that most of us have had this experience, and, often, this leaves us confused, wondering what happened, and why? The answer lies in the fact that when someone becomes defensive, they aren’t just defending their position, they are defending their judgement… they are defending themselves!

This can be especially apparent when you witness two people arguing about a particular political figure (or read it on social media). Rather than a clear discussion of the facts, what you often see is an intense, emotional argument about the righteousness of each person’s perspective. This is because each person is afraid that the other is questioning not just their position, but their judgement, and it is this deeply-held fear that is fueling the defensive nature of the argument.

For those of you who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy, you know that this is because the first part of the brain to receive information is the limbic system. Further, because the prime directive of this middle brain is to keep us safe and alive as a specie, it tends to interpret almost anything negative as dangerous, and throws us into the part of the brain designed to deal with danger by reacting without thinking (the brainstem).

Therefore, when we feel (rightly or wrongly) that our judgement is under attack, we react by becoming defensive. The problem, of course, is that this lower brain is not where we have access to our best interpersonal skills or problem-solving skills, and, therefore, our defensiveness often comes across as simply an attack on the other person. Of course, this tends to trigger their lower brain, and the cycle of defensiveness is born and exacerbated.

To break this cycle, we must first understand the neuroscience of what is happening. In other words, rather than continue to argue about the “issue du jour,” we must understand how our brains tend to interpret disagreements and ensure that we are coming from the upper 80% of the brain (the neocortex, what I call “The Top of the Mind”). This will put us in the most powerful position to influence the nature of the discussion.

Then, if our goal is truly a solution-focused conversation, we must remove the threat to their judgement by letting them know that we can see why they would think and feel what they do, or at least that we understand how their belief about the subject would be important to them. This is called empathizing, and, while this skill is included in almost every course on conflict resolution on the planet, it is a perspective that many find hard to adopt. Why? Because it feels too passive…almost as if we are giving in.

Here is where we might take a lesson from the martial art of Aikido, where unlike other martial arts, the goal is conflict resolution versus defeating your opponent. Aikido first speaks to the importance of staying centered and balanced when dealing with conflict, and then how to blend in with the energy of the other to resolve the conflict. Here is one definition of the art of Aikido:

“It takes presence of mind and a strong center of balance not to be swept up in the energy of an attack but instead to understand its core, and direct it toward resolution. You are practicing aikido whenever you listen with curiosity to an opposing view or search for mutual understanding, respect, and purpose. Aikido happens any time you stop, take a breath, and choose a more purposeful state of being. It is a unique blend of power and grace.”

I love this last line, “It is a unique blend of power and grace.” This speaks to the value of bringing the energies of both Yin and Yang to a discussion, and listening with curiosity to an opposing view in order to search for mutual understanding, respect, and purpose.

This is what I teach in Part III of my “Life from the Top of the Mind” system. I call it the “Neuroscience of Conflict Resolution,” or how to use our knowledge of the brain to engage others in a way that allows them to shift from their defensive, resistant brain to their receptive brain so that we can create more solution-focused conversations versus just continuing to debate about “Who’s right.”

Therefore, if you would like to become more influential in your life and the lives of others in the future by bringing more power and grace to your discussions, I suggest that you contact me, because until we understand the neuroscience of defensiveness, we continue to remain at a loss for how to deal with it successfully.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill