“Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day” by Anne Katherine, M.A. is teaching me a great deal. The author is explaining ‘defenses’ people sometimes use to break communication boundaries. She provides examples of different types of defensive reactions and their effect on communication.
“Anger before a conversation has even started can be an attempt to control the other person. It can be a way of saying, “I’m going to try stopping you before you even start. Back off. If you confront me, I’ll be angry at you.”
Asking for Examples
It is appropriate to ask for examples. Even though such a question could be a defense designed to convert the issue into evidence that can be torn apart, it is right to honor this request by reporting examples. Sometimes asking for examples is a set up. When the responder exploits examples, the initiator will, over time, stop giving them.
Missing the Point
“Missing the point is a defense of misdirection. While you are talking about the trees, I’m going to pretend that the conversation is about geography. The clever defender takes a tack that is close enough to fool the initiator into thinking that the real issue is being addressed.”
Accusing one of a feeling they are not having
“This defense is usually very effective in sidetracking the initiator. In the very act of defending oneself against the accusation, one starts moving toward being angry. Anger is funny in this way. You can feel calm and clear, and then when someone accuses you of being angry, even though you weren’t angry a second before, suddenly you do start feeling angry. As a defense it works like a charm. If you get lost in an argument about whether or not you are angry or when your anger started, the defender wins.
An offense is a good defense. If you’re scrambling to respond to each attack, you’re wearing down and beginning to see yourself as being in the wrong. Ordinarily, it’s a positive thing in a conflict to be able to see the other person’s side. In the case of arguing with a ‘defender’, by getting more into their perspective, you’re losing touch, bit by bit, with your own point. The focus is shifting from you to them. Gradually, they are becoming more powerful, and you’re sliding into a one-down position.
Bringing up old issues
This is a continuing defense of attacking, bringing up an old argument that, undoubtedly, has been argued many times before. Getting someone into an old argument is a good defense because each person knows their lines and can settle into an old rut.
Denying one’s own words
This can create a lot of confusion for the other person. Denying one’s own words is a way of minimizing the other person’s efforts. This is often a ‘layered defense’. First the person will pull you into a different argument, then use a denial of their own words to put you in the wrong. Most people would be pretty confused by now and would have lost all track of their original concern.
Overstating true and natural feelings
Being accused of being ‘out of line’ when you are behaving naturally given the circumstances is overstating your true and natural feelings. The misuse of what would ordinarily be an appropriate comment turns it into a weapon and a defense. When we overstate how someone is behaving, that is a defense. The person is mirrored incorrectly, which can throw them off and make them feel wrong.
The Victim role
Pretending to be victimized – entering the victim role – puts the other person into the wrong and also increases their anger, frustration, and powerlessness. Some participants might get abusive at this point, and others might feel hopeless and back off.
Stating an obvious fact as if it’s being argued about is an example of misdirection. Changing the meaning of a statement made or a topic being discussed is an example of misdirection.
Parroting is taking the other person’s statement and using it as if it is your own. This defense can sidetrack and confuse the initiator. Stealing someone’s legitimate issue and acting as if it is your own is parroting.
The last word
When you decide that you no longer want to continue the conversation and you disengage, the defender will accuse you of ‘walking away’, ‘refusing to talk about the issue’ or accuse you of not ‘finishing the argument or conversation.’
The author described multiple defenses as being “like a series of punches. They are effective in creating confusion for the other person, who is forced into warding off blows.”
Her suggestions for how to deal with defenses include:
- “you can try calling them on it”
- “refuse to engage with defenses. The more you respond to someone’s defenses, the further you will be pulled from your own issue.”
- “the first time someone acts as if they are being accused, you can reiterate your own purpose, need, or intention. Clarifying the boundaries of your concern. For example, “I am saying this, but I’m not saying that.”
- “explain how you want the other person to receive you. For example, “I’m not accusing you of being bad, but I am saying something important to me. You are doing something in our relationship that feels bad to me. I want you to listen to my concern.”
- “if you start to feel confused, you are running into defenses. You don’t have to be able to identify them to know that the conversation has gone astray. Take a break. Get clear again, then resume.”
- “When in doubt, go back to your original issue. If you are vulnerable to being sidetracked [by the other person], write down the issue on a piece of paper so you can refer to it if you get lost.”
Again, I wish I had known more about ‘defenses’ before I got pulled into a conversation that quickly became an argument. If I had known about, and how people use, these ‘defenses’ to manipulate and control communication, I would have disengaged as soon as it began.
A mutual friend said they recognized the ‘tactics’ used to avoid being held accountable for what she was saying. They struggle with the same issues with this person and realize that most ‘conversations’ with them are destined to degrade into ‘defensive blows’ that end only when they have disengaged and put distance between them. This person is so guarded, so ‘defended’, has built so many walls – a fortress – that they interpret anything said to them as an attack, even when you are repeating their own words to them.
I’m recognizing these ‘defenses’ in several conversations I’ve had recently with several different people. I’ve been feeling confused a lot lately when talking with people that I typically trust and feel comfortable with. One explanation for this ‘defensiveness’ offered by a professional friend was that this time of year is very stressful for many people, the prospect of a new year beginning can have a lot of promise but it can also indicate time slipping away which can cause a lot of anxiety and in some cases panic.
I don’t think I want to get caught in the trap of analyzing why these folks are using ‘defenses’, but rather understand the ‘defenses’ themselves, so I can better determine whether it’s in my best interest to invest time and energy in such conversations.
I am feeling a bit validated and reassured as to my responses to my friend, as I see them identified as appropriate ways to respond to someone who is ‘defended.’ I think the next step for me is preventing myself from being pulled into engaging with folks who are using defensive reactions, being able to stop myself in the discussion, evaluate and disengage if necessary, so that I can honor my own communication boundaries.
* I both quoted and paraphrased the text from this section of the book.