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Defensive barriers to communication.

Defensive Barriers to Communication

Defensive behaviors can be the result of a:

* Challenge to private or public perceptions of ourselves.

* Desire to be perfect in the public's eye.

* Lack of self-confidence.

* Fear of being found to be less than what was previously thought.

* Fear of a loss of status.

* Fear of rejection.

Defensiveness is often a reflection of insecurity in individuals. It tends to distort questions into accusations and responses into justifications. [1] There is a little wonder that effective communication often ends when the speaker or listener becomes defensive. In response to defensiveness, "attack or avoidance" replaces "fight or flight," in a self-perpetuating cycle of events, leading to more threats and accusations, and more defensive behaviors and counterattacks.

The reference here is not to physical threats to safety. It is the threat of challenge, the fear of losing the ability to control, predict, or know ourselves. Ego and prestige are threatened. Our self-image may include the perception that we are honest, ethical, reliable, trustworthy, truthful, responsible, intelligent, congenial, generous, etc. A significant threat to a self-image leaves us with basically two alternatives--accept or ignore the threat, or protect the self-image by defensive behaviors.

Defensiveness makes us feel uncomfortable, hostile, and/or guilty. It causes obvious emotional and physical tension. It can make us perspire and speak in a rapid, higher pitched voice. We are likely to become angry, aggressive, or withdrawn. If defensiveness is excessive, the outcome is predictably bad. Not only does the communication process end, but interpersonal relationships are injured, feelings are hurt, and the underlying cause of the conflict remains unresolved.

We attempt to construct an image of ourselves that is often unreal. It is an exaggeration, or a type of distortion of the truth. We do everything to protect that image, consciously and subconsciously. This tendency to protect our self-image is not always undesirable, especially when threats have a malicious or cruel intent.

It is important for us to recognize 12 common defense mechanisms, [2] because most of them damage interpersonal relationships:

* Rationalization

* Compensation

* Reaction formation

* Projection

* Identification

* Fantasy

* Repression

* Dependency or regression

* Emotional insulation and apathy

* Displacement

* Undoing

* Verbal aggression

To "rationalization," from a psychological point of view, is to conceive of a logical axllanation that is untrue. It is a common tactic, sometimes unconsciously used, but it is easily recognized by the other party.

"Compensation" is an attempt to cover up personal shortcomings, rather than admit to them or to face them directly.

Responding is an exaggerated fashion, opposite to the way you actually feel, is the use of "reaction formation" as a defense mechanism.

Accusing others, disowning your own faults and shortcomings, is an example of "projection." Our own undesirable trait is projected onto others. There is disregard for the other person or for how the projected statements, true or false, affect that person. Your integrity is placed at risk.

Awareness of a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and a poor self-image may make you try to hide that fact by "identification" with or imitation of others.

"Repression" deals with a threatened self-image through denial that a certain thing is a problem or that the problem exists with you. This approach does not make the problem go away.

Developing a degree of "dependency or regression" is another mechanism for denial of the existence of a problem. Rather than face the issue, the person becomes dependent on someone or on something or may regress to an earlier stage of development.

The person who has had a painful emotional experience may resort to "emotional insulation and apathy" in order to avoid another episode of similar pain. In this situation, the person never deals with the underlying issue.

For those who cannot respond directly to persons with whom they are at issue, "displacement" of anger and hostility onto innocent others who are not a threat to them may be the response.

When there is personal guilt or a lack of self-confidence, "undoing" the act by apologizing or by performing a good deed may be the defense mechanism.

The use of "verbal aggression" is a common self-defense tactic. Attack the other person in a similar but stronger fashion than you were attacked. This diverts the focus from you and indicates that the other person is not perfect either.

By recognizing the above mechanisms for defense of our self-image, we can realize that they are often used to defend unrealistic or untrue self-images. If used to an extreme, they can destroy our views of ourselves.

The various mechanisms for defense are commonly used in combinations. We all use them at one time or another, but in small degrees. We must be aware that the use of defense mechanisms may be the only thing that keeps some people from going off the deep end. We must not try to remove essential defenses in such individuals.

Because defensive behavior occurs when our self-image is threatened, and because it naturally increases between two opposing individuals after the behavior is started, we must be aware of exhibiting or producing defensive behavior so that it can be avoided.

Evaluating a person, making judgments, showing control, manipulating, or showing indifference, superiority, or uncertainty can result in defensive behaviors. [3] On the other hand, opposites to these practices create supportive behaviors--asking non-judgmental questions to obtain information; having an orientation toward problem solving; showing spontaneity and naturalness; demonstrating emphaty and concern; interacting with a sense of equality, mutual trust, and respect; and having a willingness to listen to other ideas and to change.

Defensiveness is a significant barrier to communication. It is caused by a threat to our self-image, which we want to protect. Defensiveness often results in an end to effective communication. When used in excess, it can destroy the view we have of ourselves and interpersonal relationships, without resolving underlying problems.


[1] Lewis, P. Organizational Communication--The Essence of Effective Management, third edition. New York, N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 1987, pp. 105-48.

[2] Adler, R., and Towne, N. Looking Out/Looking In--Interpersonal Communication, second edition. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978, pp. 103-43.

[3] Gibb, J. "Defensive Communication." Journal of Communication 11(3): 141-8, Sept. 1961.

James M. Richardson, MD, FACP, FACPE, is Medical Director, Fairmont Hospital, San Leandro, Calif. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the College and an associate member of the College's Society of Hospitals.
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Title Annotation:interpersonal relations
Author:Richadson, James M.
Publication:Physician Executive
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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