How to Deal with the Highly Defensive People in Your Life
The Shell Game
One reason the Roman Empire conquered most of ancient Europe was a military maneuver called the turtle. In battles a regiment would clump together, the soldiers in the center holding their shields above their heads, while those on the periphery shielded the unit's front, back, and sides. They'd march along that way, pretty much an indestructible human tortoise. You, too, need such tactics for engaging with HDPs who loom above you in the social-power landscape.
"Going turtle" means putting up an emotional shell. This isn't easy, because mirror neurons in your brain fire in resonance with the feelings of people around you. If you and I were talking, part of your brain would organize itself to match part of mine, and vice versa. When you're with a loving person, this is wonderful; with an HDP, it creates wars straight out of the Mesozoic era. To avoid conflagration, you must pull your sensitive social neurons back into a shell.
It isn't all that hard. Try this: Think about an occasion when an HDP blew up at you. Remember the shock, the anger, the urge to lash back. Got it? Good. Now picture your living room painted kumquat orange. Then figure out whether 713 is a prime number. Do you notice how your mind lets go of emotional reactivity as it attacks visual or analytical problems? Artists and scientists are notoriously eccentric because their mental work diverts brainpower from social connection. When I'm listening to an HDP's rant, I am also, almost always, thinking about painting. Desert landscapes, usually. They help my inner turtle feel safe, so that I don't mirror the aggression of the HDP.
Next Step: The High Road
Pulling into an emotional shell is better than engaging in dinosaur warfare, and can allow you to converse with HDPs without being destroyed. An even higher goal than turtling, however, is to remain fearlessly human in the face of hostility. My idol, in this regard, is dear departed Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, who loved reptiles unabashedly and unilaterally, even as he grappled and sidestepped to avoid their violent attacks. There are many HDPs in my life I really enjoy, the way Steve Irwin enjoyed his crocs. Joanna, for example, is a good friend and wonderful writer, especially for a lizard.
You can learn a lot about handling HDPs by studying the way Irwin treated his beloved reptiles: firmly but lovingly. "You're all right, sweetheart," he'd croon as a sea snake tried desperately to envenomate him. "Aren't you gorgeous!" he'd exult to a charging one-eyed alligator. And you could tell he meant it. I think HDPs all over the world must have felt strangely happy watching Steve lovingly disarm reptiles like themselves.
If you're feeling brave enough, try the crocodile hunter's techniques on a highly defensive person. See something beautiful in them, and steadfastly mirror that instead of their antagonism. I've used the above Irwinisms—"You're all right, sweetheart" and "Aren't you gorgeous!"—and found them very effective, even in business negotiations. But my favorite reptile-wrangling skill, the one I used with Joanna, consists of three ridiculously simple words: "All is well."
Try saying this, warmly, the next time an HDP lashes out at you. "You attacked my writing!" All is well. "You're implying I'm ugly!" All is well. "Do I look like an alcoholic to you?" All is well. It may sound off-point, but since extreme defensiveness is itself off-point, this actually works better than following your HDP's arguments. When I assured Joanna, "All is well," she instantly relaxed. Keeping "All is well" on the tip of your tongue can disarm bullies, mend marriages, stop fistfights. It's a three-word de-defensivizer.
Say it now, to feel it in your mouth and mind. Repeat the whole classic mantra: "All is well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Feel how this soothes your inner lizard. It works so well I don't even care if it's true—though I suspect it may be, in some mystical realm that mortal eyes see only through a glass, darkly. But one thing's for sure, even in the workaday world, where friends may turn into dinosaurs and you're stuck with an exploding coworker: If you have a few reptile-wrangling tricks under your belt, all will be a heck of a lot better.
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