Defensive communication is verbal and nonverbal communicating that occurs automatically when an individual feels some sort of emotional threat (denial, rejection, judgment, etc.). This happens when talking with others, processing environments, and even while consuming media. When one person gets defensive in a conversation, others soon follow because they now feel emotionally threatened. This process tends to pattern and behaves predictably, which means defensiveness can be observed and catagorized.
While there are many theories on defensiveness in humans, perhaps there is none so elegant nor relatable as that described by influential thinker and founder of family and marriage therapy Virginia Satir, which she called the "Communication Stances".
The 4 Defense Stances
According to Satir, we have 4 primary defensive patterns that emerge in our communications with other, and these can be rather easily identified in our self and in others by observing verbal and nonverbal cues.
- Superreasonable Stance : those who prefer this position do not mind conflict but are uncomfortable with uncertianty and feelings, so they detach from them to feel safe. The postures are flat affect, arms crossed, legs crossed, and even leaning away from others. They use words like “well actually...”, or “if you would just be reasonable” to distance themselves from vulneribility. This defense can lead to chronic isolation for its user as it fosters disconnection; others may often feel misunderstood or minimized by the supperreasonable stance since they don't get to be heard or validated unless they are judged "reasonable" and seek out someone else to connect with.
- Irrelevant Stance: those who prefer this stance are conflict avoidant and uncomfortable being anything but happy so they will deny reality to avoid vulneribility. The postures are like rapid movements, being "wiggely", or perhaps laughing at inappropriate moments. Words they use sound like “not to change the subject but” or “did you see that new movie?” This defense can lead to being percieved as immature due to others feelings not being taken seriously, this is how they make themselves and others irrelevant.
- Placators : those who prefer this stance are conflict avoidant and prefer to feel guilty or sad than to feel angry or tense, choosing to do just about anything, including ignore their own needs (on their knees),’ to feel less vulnerible. They use words like “please, just listen to your dad” or “now, it wasn’t that bad.” This defense can lead to feeling unappreciated due to giving up so much of the self for peace, and others often feel uncertain about what this person needs from them.
- Blamers : those who like this stance are most comfortable expressing joy or anger, and choose to make others feel guilty (finger pointing) instead of being vulnerible. They use words like “you should have” or “if you would try harder, then I wouldn’t have to…”. This defense can lead to a lot of resentment and high levels of anger due to unmet emotional needs, and can drive others away due to high levels of conflict.
Look at the imagery here, see the positions of the bodies? Superreasonable people position their bodies in away positions, blamers in pointing overbearing positions, placator in a subordinate position, and irrelevant posture is wiggly. Look for it in people, in yourself. It is pretty incredible how easy it is to spot one of these defenses!
And defenses always tells us the same thing, no matter what the stance is--this person feels emotionally unsafe. I want to be clear here though, this doesn't mean you are making them unsafe, it means their feelings are hard for them to process in that moment. So what do you do if a defense occurs?
The Level Stance
When you spot a defense in self or other, the trick is to level the situation, reduce power exchanges and avoid the four stances. Levelers have an open stance; arms open, and legs in a relaxed open stance, neutral, kind expression--and they are open to the conversation, showing curiosity, empathy instead of denial or attack.
This person is saying, “I am safe to talk to you about my feelings and you are safe to talk to me about yours”. The leveler can figure out what is making them feel unsafe and ask for safety, they can also help others do the same by asking questions instead of defending.
The Leveling Tool
To level yourself, use the following XYZ rubric (warning: you will need to practice to get good at it):⦁ When _______X______________happened, I felt_____________Y___. What I need to feel safe in this conversation is____________Z___________.
To offer leveling to another, ask "did anything happen (X) in this conversation to make you feel unsafe in any way (Y )? And what would help you feel safe again (Z)?"
If you cannot move past a defensive moment in a conversation, it may be best to put a pin in it to avoid escalation--defenses activate more defenses and so on until exaustion. Rest up and meet some emotional needs of yours until a more open dialogue can happen.
I am safe in myself and level in my communication.