Defensive Communication

How arguments begin

Each and every day, due to misunderstandings, jumping to conclusions and an absence of active listening, people who care for one another get into fights, disagreements and arguments.

When these patterns repeat on a weekly or daily basis, it slowly erodes the relationship to one of distrust, defensiveness and disconnection.

If the cycle continues, what was once an exciting, engaging and loving relationship falls into a broken pairing of two people who share the same space but are often living separate lives.

There is a simple 4 step process to improve communication and to end this destructive cycle. To stop fighting and to begin empathic listening is simple, it may not be easy at first but with practice you will see remarkable results.

The process is called Non-Violent Communication, NVC was introduced by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960's. The system is so effective it has been used effectively to move past brutal behaviour in hostile enviornments such as; Rwanda, Ireland, Croatia, Serbia, and the Middle East.

The 4 Parts of Non-Violent Communication

There are some basic assumptions that are needed to be in place for NVC to work:

  • We all share some basic human needs, i.e. to be & feel happy
  • Our basic needs are provided for by interdependent (working together) relationships
  • Human beings are soft-wired to connect and share
  • People have the ability to choose and to change

When these assumptions are in place and there is a willingness to work together to create positive change and results, then NVC can work.

Honest Expression AND Empathic Listening

In every interaction between two parties there is a flow of energy, when one party is honestly expressing while talking, it is necessary for the other party to be engaged in active and empathically listening.

Emapthic listening is using more than just your ears for hearing because that is only part of the message, it also involves what Stephen Covey calls "listening with the eyes." Feeling what is being shared not just for the informational content but also for the emotional feelings behind the words.

Very few of us have been taught this skill and fewer still have this innate ability but it can be learned, honed and internalized with practice.

When there is this healthy flow of energy back and forth, the honest expressing can be understood through empathic listening then it opens up the fertile ground for connection.

The 4 Stages of Non-Violent Communication

  • Observation
  • Feelings
  • Needs
  • Request


In the first step of NVC, the speaker will share what they observed has occured between the two parties. It is very important in all of the dialogue that an "I" language is utilized as compared to a "You" reference.

The importance of this is that the individual sharing is coming from there own perception of what has occured, without making any kind of judgement or evaluation of what someone else has done.

By communicating in this manner, it reduces the instances of defensiveness and posturing. Whether somebody else agrees or not with the speaker observation, based on the assumptions listed above it is important that the listener at least acknowledge that it is the speaker's perception of what was experienced and by that very nature it is valid for the speaker.

For example, "I saw ...." as compared to, "You did ...."


In the next stage of the communication, the speaker shares how they felt regarding what they observed. Again it is important to use "I" statements as compared to "You" statements.

Also at this stage it is very important for the listener to release any judgement, defensiveness or explanation of the situation being expressed. For the communication to be effective, it is necessary for the listener to to their best to feel and connect with what is being shared, without the need to establish right or wrong, good or bad, etc.

For example, "When I this happened, I felt..." as compared to, " When you did this, you made me feel..." (a double accusation which would create defensive posturing)

This is the stage where the connection opens up by giving the speaker space to openly express how they feel. This is often a big part of the healing process in itself. As human beings, we all desire to feel heard and connected, especially when we are in pain. Giving an individual your time and attention to allow them to express is one of the most precious gifts you can give.


In the third stage of NVC. The speaker shares the needs that they have and how the occurence did not fulfill their needs. Again from the listener's perspective, what occured does not make them wrong or a bad person.

This stage is about clearly communicating what an individual wants and needs, it is not about unreasonably forcing one person's beliefs on to another. It is simply laying down the foundation of what is important to one party.

This is acutally a stage that is often neglected in many relationships. We use words to describe what is important to us but the way that we use the word and what it means to us as individuals can often be very different to other people.

A classic example in many relationships is the idea of "going on vacation." To one partner in the relationship, an ideal vacation may be the other person's interpretation of hell and vice versa.

As a personal note to highlight this, I have a friend that I love dearly, when he got married to his wife, for their honeymoon, they went on a hiking trip through the Swiss Alps! Now that sounds great and all of that, wonderful scenery, communing with nature, traveling the world, but I'm sorry, that sounded like a workout to me and not a honeymoon. Which I teased him about non-stop.

So at this stage, it is very important both to communicate and attempt to understand the needs that are desired and what that means to the speaker. It is helpful that the speaker use as much of their vocabulary to fully express what they need.

For example, "I need to feel happy." is not as descriptive as "I need to feel connected with you through being heard and understood, doing fun activities that we both enjoy and to have engaging emotional discussions."


The final step and maybe the most important for the communication and relationship to continue to move forward is the request.

Here, the speaker request the listener to help to create an improved outcome for the future and to get their agreement from the request. It is obvious without this in place, it would be very difficult to move forward from the interaction.

Of course, this does not mean that the speaker is making some request that does not also honor the other party, it is not a carte blanche to make an unreasonable suggestion that sets up the other party for disappointment and failure.

The request is meant to provide incremental steps to an improved relationship over time. We all desire that things would dramatically improve right now, but the simple fact of the matter is that some change takes time and needs to be address in managable steps.

Now of course, this does not mean that if you are in an abusive relationship of any type that you "give" the other person time to not be abusive to you. Whether the abuse is verbal, emotional, physical or otherwise, that is not a relationship at all but an arena of violence.

A violent indiviudal needs help from other than there partner of the relationship to break their own cycle of anger and fear. That is not the partner's responsibility.

But in a damaged but relatively healthy relationship, requests are made to allow both parties to progressively work on strengthening the connection and empathy between all involved.