As a competitive person and coach of a collegiate debate team, I am forever reflecting on the means of persuasion and thinking about how we as humans respond to certain messages and reject others. When my career as a debater first began, I was extremely sensitive to the rhetorical barrage I endured and took most of personally. I was in my early thirties when I first started to participate in competitive debate and often felt like crying. I was a grown man! A grown man who couldn’t convince a nineteen-year-old judge that my nineteen-year-old opponent was just wrong about Christina Aguilera being more talented than Brittney Spears. Years later as I reflect on my first experiences in competitive debate, I’ve developed a few axioms that I share with my students–the first of which is “Debate makes dummies of us all.” I’m not suggesting that one actually experiences the loss of brain cells when debating, but I am suggesting that when we engage others in intellectual and rhetorical arguments it exposes our own weaknesses and quickly reveals we still have much to learn. Competitive debate, like golf, is a humbling game.
I’ve also learned that there are tremendous benefits to participating in these activities. Among them our critical thinking skills are sharpened and oratorical skills are greatly improved. Also there are a host of real world applications which benefits our human relationships and personal growth as individuals. Debate challenges our thinking and the thinking of others and uniquely equips us to evaluate our own values and beliefs. It also helps us learn a great deal about our defensive tendencies, our often mechanisms of escape that help us cope with many of the harsher realities of our lives.
Defensiveness is something we all experience. It is a coping mechanism that says less about our particular position and more about the latent fears lurking under our efforts to fight or flee. For most people, defensiveness manifests itself as one of the following:
Withdrawal into silence: When we feel like we are outmatched by information, knowledge, or skill, it is common to want to retreat into silence. No one likes to discover he or she is wrong about something. But if we could learn to see these as opportunities to learn, grow, and evolve in our ideas, we would be far less likely to withdrawal into silence. Prolonged silence helps no one in relationships and certainly does not communicate a desire to learn from one another. When we feel this way, we should recognize that this is great opportunity to learn more about an issue, subject, or person we don’t know much about. When feeling this way, the best thing we can do is ask questions rather than retreating to our safe place of silence.
Playing “Poor Pitiful” me: A common feeling that attaches itself to us in times of defensiveness is to feel as if we have been wronged, slighted, or mistreated in some way by an offending party. And while there are real acts of aggression and harm that should not be ignored or dismissed, sometimes it may just be a misunderstanding or personality conflict that needs to be managed or resolved. When we get down on ourselves we rob ourselves of thinking strategically about how to resolve a situation and get lost in our own feelings of doubt and regret. And while it is always appropriate to grieve or otherwise fully experience emotions, when those energies are directed exclusively toward ourselves, we may lose a chance to learn and move forward in a greater strength and commitment to change and improve.
All or nothing thinking: This trap of falling for false dichotomies and binary choices it what most often paralyzes our ability to move forward. We fall for the trap of thinking life is an “all” or “nothing” proposition. Very few issues in life fall into nice and neat categories of good and bad, right and wrong, black and white. Most issues fall along a spectrum including our actions and resulting consequences. Much of life involves a negotiation of transactions between trading the good for the best or the worst for not so bad. Many times we must learn to be content with “as good as it gets” until something better or different presents itself. Contentment is a wonderful gift that should be cultivated in helping us navigate these trade offs.
Wanting to be right: Wanting to be right should never be confused with actually being right. We are all convinced that we possess the noblest of intentions and can’t imagine a scenario where we actually intend to do harm. In addition to wanting to be right we pursue goals of wanting to have fun or experience variety and don’t think through all of the unintended consequences of our actions. If we insist on wanting to be right at the expense of actually learning something we deny ourselves the chance to change for the better. Emotional management is helpful here. If we can learn to mitigate our temporary emotional volatility in favor of opening our hearts and minds to new knowledge and information, we will position ourselves for greater opportunities.
Blaming or shaming others: When we feel defensive it is tempting to lash out in anger in an attempt to share our discomfort with others. The old adage “misery loves company” applies here, but does nothing to help us learn or endure us to the hearts of others. Instead of blaming and shaming it is much better to engage in vulnerability. This opens us up to receive help from others instead of shutting us off from the very ones who are in the best position to help us learn and grow.
Sudden drop in IQ/confusion: When we are defensive it is common to feel like we are less intelligent or capable than others. Again it is helpful to remember that very few things in this life fit into definable categories. There will always be someone smarter than us. There will always be those less intelligent or knowledgeable than ourselves. Embrace intellectual curiosity and commit to cultivation of becoming a life long learner. We will always have moments where we feel less knowledgeable than others, but this is an opportunity to learn and we shouldn’t assume it is due to a lack of intellectual ability or cognitive skill. We just have more things to learn.
High charge of energy in the body: This is a sign that the fight or flight reflexes are engaging. Channel these energies in resolving the situation and finding a solution. These energies are gifts to accomplish what it is that needs to be done. Don’t waste them in self destructive behavior, but rather channel them in the direction of improvement and growth.
Making everything catastrophic: Unlike acts of Mother Nature, few of own own actions are really as bad as we imagine. Thinking that an action we take or a consequence we are experiencing is the “end of the world” tends to put us in unproductive places causing us to doubt our future actions leaving us to mire ourselves further into a problematic circumstance, rather than freeing ourselves by taking decisive actions that will change our circumstances.
Wanting the last word: Those of us who are convinced that most everything can be solved by communication, sometimes fall into the trap of wanting to make sure that every feeling and thought is tied up into a nice little bow, or perhaps this is just a justification we use for insisting on the last word in conversations and conflicts. Either way, many times continued conversation complicates circumstances and relationships. Learn to be okay with just moving on.
Obsessive thinking: Overthinking every detail, word, and action is a huge defensive characteristic of mine. I can obsess over words I’ve said and actions I’ve taken decades ago, not to mention the things I’ve said and done in the last few days. I’ve learned that I just have to let things go. Regret and obsessive thinking isn’t productive and does nothing to move me forward in resolving feelings or taking positive actions. Learn from me. Don’t overthink your past. Reflect on it, learn from it, but don’t obsess over it. Move forward.
Flooding with information to prove a point: Saying more words and conveying more information doesn’t always contribute to quality communication. Often it complicates the relationship. Don’t over share feelings or information, say what needs to be said, and only what needs to be said. But don’t say anything until you make a commitment to listen to others. Listening is how you learn, grow, and ultimately change. At the end of the day, what does it matter if you have proved your point and lost all opportunity to influence others because a need to be right exceeded the emotional and psychological needs of those around you? Always seek to understand before seeking to be understood.
Defensive thinking and actions are common to all of our experiences. But it doesn’t have to be so common that it results in the deaths of our relationships or result in making our relationships with others less enjoyable and productive. Instead be open to listen and to learn, which in final analysis is helpful not only to our own metal well being, but also to the well being of those we love.