Handling Conflict - Avoiding Defend/Attack

A Defend/Attack occurs when discussions become emotionally heated, and value-loaded behaviours are used to attack or make an emotional defence. The result, whether one is defending or attacking, is the same - negative and destructive.

The ego is that part of us that wants to be seen, heard, and valued and so we have a natural desire to be liked; loved; understood; listened to; involved; included; paid attention to, etc. This natural and mostly unconscious intention often drives us to clash with others as we strive to get our point across. Being understood and gaining positive attention is vital to our psychological well-being but all is eroded when we engage in Defend/Attack behaviour. When someone is ‘pushing your button’, it is natural to want to push back but when you do, it is often at the expense of a good relationship.

“Try to understand my point of view!”

Think back to the last time you were in some kind of disagreement or argument (a Defend/Attack spiral). Regardless of the words you were using, what you were really saying was, “Listen to me, just understand my point of view, the way I’m feeling, and then you’ll understand that my point is valid and we can carry on as normal.” And what was the other person saying at the same time? “Listen to me, just understand my point of view, the way I’m feeling, and then you’ll understand that my point is valid and we can carry on as normal”. Both are struggling to be understood but neither is listening to understand. Listening is the key principle to help avoid conflict and Defend/Attack situations. Both parties are eager to be heard, seen and valued and so it is important that you begin by being the first to understand and only then, to be understood. It doesn’t work the other way around.

This is not easy when emotions are high and you want to make yourself understood. Most people listen from their own perspective, in other words from a point of, ‘How does this affect me?’ We need however to understand the other person's point of view and to listen from their perspective not ours. How is what they are saying affecting them? How are they feeling about what they are saying? This is what is meant by ‘Listening to Understand’.


What is your intention in this kind of interaction? Are you attempting to find a solution or are you trying to lay blame or prove who is right or wrong? This energy of blame always makes a bad situation worse. Being right or defending a position takes a lot of energy and often causes conflict and disconnection.

Defending oneself or attacking someone else is missing the point. It focuses on the person rather than on the issue. A Defend/Attack is always personal and typically provokes a retaliating attack or defence in response. For example, “You never listen to what I am saying.” Or, “Hey! I was just trying to help.” A Defend/Attack is a ‘push style’ responding to a ‘push style’ and the result is that neither party wins. For example, “You were the one who said he would be there!” “Yes, but you were the one who forgot to tell me the meeting was in your office!” A Defend/Attack is always destructive in some way and usually spirals and causes major friction in relationships

Imagine the following scenario - a husband arrives home and says…

Hi honey, I’m home (or words to that effect) - Simple statement.

Hi sweetheart, did you get the milk? - Simple question.

Did I get the milk?! Give me a break, I’ve been on the road for two hours after working non-stop for ten hours and all you want to know is….. - Defend/Attack (Try and understand how I am feeling!).

(Interrupting….) Hey! I just asked if you brought the milk - Defending - which has the same impact as attacking - another way of saying “Don’t give me a hard time”.

Just asked! You’re nagging as always - Defend/Attack.

Nagging? As if you never nag, you’re always nagging me about your shirts - Defend/Attack.

Well why don’t you just iron them instead of waiting for me to remind you? - Defend/Attack.

What! Do you think I’ve got nothing to do but be your slave? What do you ever do for me? - Defend/Attack.

Oh, so who helped your mum with her garden on Saturday? - Defend/Attack.

About bloody time too! The first time in eleven years - Defend/Attack.

Yes but I did it didn’t I? You just can’t ever give me credit when I do a good job, you’re always………. - and on and on and on………………….

There are numerous Defend/Attacks in the above exchange - a spiral. But even just one can be destructive. Here are the main characteristics of this type of interaction:

It’s Always Personal

A Defend/Attack is always personal. The intention is to blame, ridicule, deflate, or belittle the other person even if done defensively. It is not a behaviour that will build, maintain, or nurture a relationship. And after all that heated discussion, where’s the milk? Did you notice that neither of the people above focused on the issue at hand, the milk. So where did all the frustration come from? Possibly by them not having expressed issues appropriately at the time. The quicker an issue or behaviour is addressed, the easier it is to have the conversation.

It is Always Destructive

Who wins this type of argument? You might think you do, for example, “No-one talks to me like that!” (Yes they do but you don’t know how to handle it). Or, “Ha, I really told her!” (Yes, but now she’s leaving you!). Regardless of the situation, a Defend/Attack is always destructive and often spirals out of control. Even in humour or what we often refer to as banter or ‘Taking the Mickey’, a Defend /Attack can hurt on some level (remember the phrase ‘Many a true word said in jest?’).

Push - Push

A Defend/Attack is a push style responding to a push style which is one of the causes of conflict. “Yes but” is a typical example of this type of response. You can’t have a Defend/Attack spiral if one of the parties is using a ‘Pull’ style. See some of the ‘Pull’ alternatives below.

Let it go!

If it’s not important, let it go! And sometimes even when it is important, apologising doesn’t mean that you were wrong or the other person was right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego. Most people argue, confront, and fight over practically anything, turning their lives into a series of battles over relatively insignificant issues. It makes more sense to choose your confrontations wisely and sometimes let others have the satisfaction of being right.

Listen to understand

You can stop the spiral of stubbornness by being the first person to reach out and listen. It’s not a competition. Push your emotions aside and listen from their perspective not yours. Consider how they are feeling and how what they are saying is affecting them.

Test your understanding

Ask questions to make sure you understand what the other person is saying before even attempting a response.

Respond with empathy

They want to be understood as much as you do and they aren’t ready to understand your point of view until they feel understood. Responding with empathy shows that you are trying to understand. You can’t however respond with empathy unless you have been listening with empathy. In other words, you need to first listen and try to understand how they are feeling before you can respond appropriately. Simply consider how you think they are feeling and check it out. For example, “You seem to be quite worried about how long it is taking?” When responding with empathy, remember to relate back both the FEELING and the CONTENT. For example, You seem to be annoyed (feeling) that I didn’t get there on time (content)?” But don’t be sarcastic. That would be just another form of Defend/Attack.

Wait three seconds

We often react to criticism emotionally and impulsively by saying the first thing that comes to mind. Waiting a few seconds after the person finishes talking will give you time to consider your reaction. It will also:

  • Allow them to finish speaking.
  • Give you time to try and understand what is being said.
  • Give you time to consider what you really want from the transaction.
  • Prevent you from reacting impulsively and emotionally.
  • Help you cope with difficult situations especially when you need time to think of an appropriate and constructive response.
  • Show the speaker that you are listening.

Remember however that silence too intense will be uncomfortable and achieve the opposite effect.

Focus on the issue not the person

Keep your focus on the topic at hand. Ask questions about the issue and seek or propose a solution.

Use a Feelings Commentary - “I’m feeling a bit concerned that this seems like an argument. I certainly don’t want to argue with you, how can I help fix this?”

A Feelings Commentary is an extremely effective way of building trust, strengthening relationships and communicating openly and assertively. It is also known as ‘responsibility language’. Instead of attacking someone by saying something like, “You make me angry,” take ownership of the communication by saying how you are feeling, for example, “I feel quite disappointed that you forgot to bring the tickets after I reminded you about them.”

A Feelings Commentary shows your openness and willingness to talk constructively about an issue, which usually encourages openness and trust from the other person. For example, “I’m feeling quite uncomfortable about what happened at our last meeting.” Or, “I’m a bit worried about how to proceed from this point, and I would welcome any suggestions you might have.”

Nurture Relationships

Everyone has an inherent need to feel heard, seen, and valued. Avoid getting hooked into any Defend/Attack situation. Enhance or at least maintain the self-esteem of others at all times and you can be assured of much improved relationships.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. Leo Buscaglia

Comments 6 comments

Joanne M Olivieri 3 years ago

I am so glad you wrote this hub. These are great tips and I love the husband, wife, milk scenario. These tips can also greatly help in a workplace customer service situation. Listening, putting yourself in the other person's shoes and offering help always makes a volatile situation much better. Voted up and shared

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Russ Baleson 3 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom Author

Hi Joanne, thank you, as you point out, this topic is relevant at home and at work. It impacts on all our relationships. I appreciate your comments. Russ

DexisView profile image

DexisView 3 years ago from New England

Well written.....I love....Is it more important for you to be right or to be happy?!? In the end who cares about being right....if it only makes you miserable. Compromise is key.

Russ Baleson profile image

Russ Baleson 3 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom Author

Thanks Dexis, yes, we spend so much time and energy trying to be right and missing the point.

SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 3 years ago from Philippines

Thank you for sharing these great advice on handling conflicts in relationships. I like the 3 second rule since it can be made into a habit when having an ordinary conversation, which then becomes an automatic reaction on our part if we ever get into an argument. The feelings commentary is also good advice since it helps relieve the stress inside us by verbalizing and channeling our anger or frustration outwards but not directed towards the other person. Thinking of one's mortality and finding the humor of the situation also changes our perception of the importance of the argument.:)

Russ Baleson profile image

Russ Baleson 3 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom Author

Hi Silent Reed, lovely to hear from you. I always value and appreciate your comments. So pleased you enjoyed these tips. I agree that if we were able to let go of the ego sometimes and look for the humour, it would help focus our perception in a far more useful way and make life far more enjoyable. Best regards, Russ

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