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How unconscious defense mechanisms affect our communication

In our daily communication, especially in partnerships, it can quickly happen that we behave disrespectfully without wanting to or realizing it. This happens due to communication and reaction patterns that have become so natural to us that we no longer perceive their background as offensive or hurtful. They result from unconscious defense mechanisms that we have developed over the course of our lives. They can put a strain on our relationships and cause misunderstandings and conflicts.

Unconscious defense mechanisms in communication

Defense mechanisms are forms of behavior and communication that we have learned because we needed them at some point. Some of the most common unconscious protective mechanisms in communication are sarcasm and irony. But there are also more subtle forms, such as automatically interpreting or analyzing the behavior of others. Another unconscious mechanism can be to give advice that no one has asked for.

Sarcasm and irony

Sarcasm and irony are common forms of communication that are often meant to be humorous but can easily come across as disrespectful. They often arise from a need to protect oneself or others by softening serious topics with a joking remark. While sarcasm and irony can be fun in certain contexts, they can also make others feel attacked or belittled. Saying "I was only joking" doesn't make it any better because it shows that the offense was not taken seriously.

Interpreting and analyzing

Interpreting, analyzing or evaluating the behavior of others is usually perceived as rather invasive. It may be well-intentioned if we want to explain to someone why we think this or that happened to them. But who are we to know that precisely? Even in counseling, I avoid analysis because I can never be exactly sure. I share assumptions and possibilities about a situation, but my counterpart can decide for themselves whether these make sense to them. When we interpret or analyze, we convey superiority and that we think we understand the other person's thoughts and feelings better than they do. We may think we are helping the other person, but in reality, this behavior serves our own need for control or assertion.

Unsolicited advice

Advice is always well-intentioned. We want to help. But how do we know that the other person actually needs our help? This has happened to you before, hasn't it? You've told a friend or your partner about a problem and received three suggestions on how you could do it better. Or the other person tells you which of your unfavorable characteristics got you into these problems. You usually don't feel better afterwards, just smaller.

How can we do better?

If we want to communicate respectfully, it is important that we become aware of these unconscious protective mechanisms in order to replace them with more mindful forms of communication. Respectful communication is based on empathy, listening and expressing appreciation for the other person. It is about giving the other person space instead of creating space for ourselves.

  • Active listening

Active listening means paying full attention to the other person because we want to understand what they are saying correctly. It is helpful to repeat statements if necessary to ensure that we have understood everything correctly. We can then ask what the person needs or tell them how we imagine the situation could be for them. Active listening shows the other person that we take their needs and feelings seriously and are interested in them.

For example: "You've just told me how exhausting your work day was and that you're tired from the long drive. What can I do for you? I can well imagine that you need a bit of rest first."

  • Say what I feel

Instead of interpreting or analyzing the behavior of others, we can focus on our own feelings and needs and communicate them clearly and directly. I-messages help to avoid misunderstandings and give the other person the opportunity to present their perspective without feeling attacked.

In comparison:

- “You” message:"You're always late and only think about yourself, you don't respect others." This interpretation can be presented as a fact to which the other person can only agree or defend themselves.

- I-message: "I feel frustrated when we are late because punctuality is important to me." This makes it easier for the other person to understand our feelings and needs. He/she can apologize and know what to change without feeling the need to defend themselves.

  • Empathy and appreciation

Empathy means putting yourself in the other person's shoes and trying to understand their feelings and perspectives. Through empathic behavior, we signal to the other person that we respect their point of view, even if we disagree. This promotes open and respectful communication and strengthens trust in the relationship, because the other person gets the feeling that their thoughts or concerns are safe with us.

Respectful communication is more constructive

Respectful communication, as illustrated here with the examples, may not seem constructive enough to many. Advice or interpretations seem more effective because they are clear instructions. However, they are more likely to push the other person into defense or submission. By simply listening, sharing ideas or our own feelings, we keep the responsibility with the other person and convey trust, which in turn motivates and encourages action.