We had an experience recently that really helped me see the problems that defensiveness creates as well as the healing power of empathy.
We were at the airport prepared to take our return flight home and in checking departure times, saw that our flight had been cancelled. No one had notified us and when we checked it, everything was as scheduled. This was disturbing news, of course, and when we went to the gate counter to inquire about this (admittedly with some frustration), the attendant coolly explained that it was weather related so not their fault (no free meal) and that our “travel agent” (which was an on-line service) should have notified us. The more she explained and defended the airline, the more frustrated we became. It was obvious she didn’t care about us. (That is generally the feeling we have when someone acts defensively – that they don’t care about us, they are more interested in defending their position. We feel alienated).
On the positive side, after we ate breakfast (since we had plenty of time), we went back to the gate counter and found a different attendant was there. We explained our situation to her with the same amount of frustration but this attendant said one word that made all the difference - “bummer”. She said it sincerely and then made an effort to help us, to check what flights were available etc. We appreciated her helpfulness and especially her empathy. We felt that she cared about us, that she was on our side.
The question we may want to ask ourselves when we’re tempted to act defensively is “What is our goal?” We can always find reasons to defend ourselves but do we want to be alienated or connected? Defensiveness alienates us from each other. Empathy, seeing things from the other’s perspective and expressing that, makes us feel cared for and connected.