Leanna Stockard, MA, AMFT

When discussing things with others, have you heard phrases such as “I know that you’re upset, but I told you to do this several times” or “I’m not trying to be rude, but that shirt does not look good on you,” or “I understand what you are saying, but I do not agree with you.” If you have heard these phrases, what kind of thoughts do you have? Do you feel that the other person is hearing you, or do you begin to feel frustrated? For me, when hearing the first part of the sentence, I initially feel appreciative of the other person’s attempt at empathizing with what I have previously shared. However, I feel that their attempt of empathy is hurt when it is followed by a defense of their position, or a counter of what I had just said. In my experience, I have come to recognize that a defense or counter general comes after the use of the word “but.”

One of my favorite quotes is, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” by Stephen R. Covey. In my experience as a couple’s therapist, I find that at times it may be challenging for partners to truly hear and understand the perspective of their partner because they are thinking about what they are going to say next. I find that this is especially the case when they are hearing something negative about themselves or are hearing a perspective that they disagree with. This is an understandable response, as it is natural to want to defend ourselves when we are hearing something we perceive as a criticism.

Although understandable, defensiveness is considered one of Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The Four Horsemen are styles of communication that we use that often diminish the attempt at effective communication. In my work, I have come to understand that the word “but” is often used as a conjunction to a defensive statement during times of heated discussion and may lead to the other person feeling invalidated. According to Dr. John Gottman, “Defensiveness will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.” Keeping this in mind, it is possible to validate someone’s feelings while also disagreeing with their perspective.

In the instances in which invalidation is not our intention in the moment, we may feel as though the other person should not feel be impacted in a negative way. However, this perspective could be damaging to the relationship, as it leaves one person feeling unheard and invalidated in the way that they feel, and the other person feeling frustrated that the other feels that way.

To work through the potential of invalidation, we need to work through the idea that it has to be an either/or within disagreements and instead look at it from a both/and framework. The person who is expressing him or herself is valid in their feelings. They are allowed to feel a certain way, and that does not necessarily have to mean that the other person was malicious in their intention, or that their feelings do not matter. It just means that we have to determine why we were impacting the person that way. “But” is the biggest indicator for me that there is a defensive comment coming on, and it does not need to take place! Instead of using “but,” try “and,” as it holds space for both parties to feel validated in their feelings, and their perspective.

If you feel that you are struggling with empathy, defensiveness, or would like to improve on your communication skills, it may be helpful to connect with a therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to get matched with one of our talented clinicians!

To learn more about Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, please take a look at this Gottman Institute’s article.