Defensiveness. We’ve all been guilty. Someone in our family says something that hurts us and we say something back to retaliate. A person at work makes a comment about us and we internally stiffen up. Someone in our church questions a decision we made as a leader and we react and defend our position. It’s easy to let defensiveness drain us and make a situation worse. Recently, however, I learned a helpful new tool that can help dampen defensiveness. It’s called curiosity.
In an interesting doctoral research project at the University of Rochester, NY, 142 students participated in a one day laboratory session. They were led to believe that a peer had rejected them and then they wrote for seven minutes. Each participant wrote under one of three conditions
- Suppression: they were asked to suppress their feelings and write on neutral events of their day.
- Expression: they were simply asked to express their thoughts and feelings.
- Interest-taking (curiosity): they were asked to express their feelings and be curious about their feelings as they wrote.
Immediately after they wrote, the researcher measured their emotions, specifically anger, their positive feelings toward others (called prosocial affect), and how they internalized rejection. Next they listened to taped speeches from the peer who rejected them and from a neural person. Finally, they rated their like-ability and intelligence.
As you might expect, all three groups rated the rejecter negatively. And those in the suppression and expression group rated the neutral person negatively as well. However, the research yielded this surprise. Those in the interest-taking group rated the neutral person more positively.
What happened? Those in the first two groups displaced some of their hurt from the rejecter onto the neutral party. Those in the curiosity group did not. And at the end of the research session, the curious group reported less anger and less feelings of rejection and more positive feelings toward others (prosocial affect). Curiosity apparently dampens the fight-flight centers of our brain.
As a practical parallel, think of a guy who has a really bad day at work and, for no fault of their own, yells at his kids when he gets home. He’s displacing his anger onto them.
So what are some lessons we can learn from curiosity and its effects on defensiveness?
- When someone says something to us in anger, rejects us, confronts us, etc. and we feel tempted to defensively respond, take a curious posture.
- Rather than suppressing your feelings or thoughtlessly expressing them, stay curious.
- Ask yourself what might have prompted the person to do or say what he or she did (i.e., Did he have a bad day at work?). The situation might also lend itself to your asking the other person non-judgmental, open ended questions.
- Be curious about your own thoughts and emotions.
- Remind yourself that that the initial anxiety, fear, or worry that another’s behavior may trigger in you, will pass. Those emotions are not you, but passing mental and emotional events. Remind yourself that you don’t have to act on the feeling.
- Keep a curious mindset not only in these difficult situations, but also about the good around you (see Philippians 4.8).
Unfortunately, curiosity may have gotten a bad rap in the past (i.e., curiosity killed the cat). Yet, when we apply it to sticky situations ripe for defensiveness, it can serve us well.
The writer of Proverbs gives us wise counsel in this verse.
A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire. (Prov 15.1, The Message)
What has helped you become less defensive?
Source: Weinstein, N. (2010) Interest-taking and carry-over effects of incidental rejection emotions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.