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8.4: Supportive versus Defensive Communication

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    Six Ways to Understand Communication Climate

    Three children's hands on a map, representing Black, brown, and white people
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Migration by Capri23auto from Pixabay

    Our natural instinct when we feel threatened is to become defensive. As a defensive communicator, we focus on protecting ourselves and our interests, which is not necessarily a bad thing as we must learn to stand up for ourselves. Unfortunately, defensiveness is usually a negative cycle that creates defensiveness in others and causing conflicts to escalate. For example, defensive behaviors, such as rolling the eyes, not listening, making excuses, or blaming others can cause your communication partner to argue back louder, walk away, blame you back, and gunnysack (a non-productive conflict tactic where one saves up or “gunnysacks” all their complaints until they burst with anger, spilling all their grievances at once) all sorts of other issues to “make a mountain out of a molehill.” And we have all been in the position before where the more defensive we become, the less we are able to communicate effectively.

    Conversely, supportive climates create more calm and productive communication outcomes. This allows for communicators to better focus on the intent and meanings of messages. In 1965, psychologist Jack Gibb came up with six pairs of supportive and defensive behaviors to help provide a better context for learning about and understanding communication climate: description versus evaluation, collaboration versus control, straightforwardness versus manipulation, empathy versus indifference, equality versus superiority, and flexibility versus certainty. Here, we examine each pair and consider its potential behaviors and outcomes.

    Description versus Evaluation

    • Description: Neutral facts that avoid any “loaded” words or judgments.
    • Example: “I feel left out when you guys go to the mall without me.”
    • Possible interpretation: The recipient knows exactly how you feel about what is bothering you. Using the I-message doesn’t place blame and communicates an openness for calm discussion.
    • Description: Statements containing a tone of accusation, blame, and/or judgment.
    • Example: “You guys always abandon me and leave me out when you go to the mall.”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipient feels attacked and judged for something that may have been unintended and misinterpreted.

    Collaboration versus Control

    • Description: The parties involved are working with each other toward a win-win situation. Everyone’s voice and ideas are just as important as the next person’s.
    • Example: “Let’s go around and share what has worked for you and what has not worked for you.”
    • Possible interpretation: Everyone involved feels included, respected, and productive.
    • Description: Speaker conveys a “know it all” attitude showing little or no interest in the receiver’s needs and ideas.
    • Example: “I’m right. You’re wrong. We do it my way, or we don’t do it at all!”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipients may feel hostile, competitive, and disrespected toward the speaker which may result in reluctance and uncooperativeness.

    Straightforwardness versus Manipulation

    • Description: Direct, candid, unambiguous, open, and honest
    • Example: “You didn’t get a raise this quarter, because while you made more sales, the volume of those sales has been down.”
    • Possible interpretation: The recipient may still be disappointed but knows exactly how and why the raise did not come through.
    • Description: To exploit, maneuver, or mastermind with hidden intentions
    • Example: “If you put in more hours and effort like John, you might have seen a raise this quarter.”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipients may feel judged that John did a better job and that his/her efforts were not appreciated. Recipients may also feel defeated and unmotivated.

    Empathy versus Indifference

    • Description: Walking a mile in the other person’s shoes and trying to relate to and support the other person
    • Example: “I understand you’re going through a rough time. I hope that extending the deadline for you will help relieve some of the stress and pressure you must be feeling.”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipient feels compassion, understanding, and even relief.
    • Description: Apathetic, detached, and aloof; general lack of concern for the other person.
    • Example: “Everyone’s got problems! If you can’t meet the deadline, you’ll just have to pay the penalty.”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipient feels unimportant and insignificant.

    Equality versus Superiority

    • Description: A sense of fairness, justness, and impartiality; everyone has the same chance.
    • Example: “I remember struggling when I first started, too. It’s going to take some time, but let me help you.”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipients may feel validated, respected, and capable.
    • Description: Communicating a sense of dominance; having an upper-hand
    • Example: I’ve shown you how to do this a million times! Move over! Let me finish it!”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipients may feel inept, inadequate, defensive, and angry.

    Flexibility versus Certainty

    • Description: Open-minded and show a willingness to adapt to something better
    • Example: “I’d love to learn how we can use this new technology to work smarter, not harder.”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipients may feel encouraged to investigate, share, and try new things.
    • Description: Overconfidence that “I’m right. You’re wrong.” No other input is needed.
    • Example: “I’ve done this a million times. This is the only way to fix it!”
    • Possible interpretation: Recipient feels unwelcome, unvalued, and unwilling to put themselves out there.
    Activity: Turning Defensive into Supportive Communication

    Directions: Randomly choose a scenario and use one of Gibb’s supportive communication strategies discussed in section 8.2 to reframe the situation.

    Scenario 1
    • Person 1: "Why do I have to nag you every time to unload the dishwasher?"
    • Person 2: "Why do you have to nag me when you know I’ll eventually get to it?"
    Scenario 2
    • Person 1: "Why can’t you ever get ready on time when we go out to dinner with my parents?"
    • Person 2: "Well, last time we went out with my family I had to wait for you to get home from work and we ended up stuck in traffic for an extra hour!"
    Scenario 3
    • Person 1: "Why don’t you ever clean your room like I ask you?"
    • Person 2: "I know I’m supposed to keep my room clean, but I work two jobs and I just don’t have the time or energy to keep my room clean."
    Scenario 4
    • Person 1: "You got home so late we missed our dinner reservation! Why didn’t you call?"
    • Person 2: "I know, but I got caught up at work with a big project and forgot."
    Scenario 5
    • Person 1: "The computer has been running super slow since you last used it!"
    • Person 2: "Why do you always blame me when something goes wrong with the computer?"
    Scenario 6
    • Person 1: "When can we leave?"
    • Person 2: "I just want to stay until after the award presentation."
    • Person 1: "I really want to leave now!"
    • Person 2:" Come on! Just wait until after the awards!"
    Discussion Questions
    1. What are some adjectives that come to mind when you hear the word defensiveness? What are some adjectives that come to mind when you hear the word supportiveness?
    2. Were there supportive strategies you found easier to use than others? If so, what were they and why were they easier for you to use?
    3. Share a scenario you think would have benefited from one of Gibb’s supportive communication strategies.

    This page titled 8.4: Supportive versus Defensive Communication is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kim Yee & Armeda Reitzel (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .