There are untold ways that people show disapproval. Some may raise their voices, others roll their eyes, some use sarcasm. From bouts of anger to withdrawal and pouting, this list is indeed long. How do we react when we are the object of someone’s reproach? Do we become defensive? I’d venture to say we are most likely to feel self-protective when the person showing his or her disapproval is someone we care about. Feelings of defensiveness are likely to result in a similar response, with our own show of displeasure. If this cycle isn’t reversed, accusation, counter-accusation and resentment intensify.

Let’s discuss some tools to help individuals stop seeing others as antagonists, and transform some of the ugliest attacks – real or perceived – into something constructive.

Moving away from defensiveness

In his book and DVDs titled “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” Marshall Rosenberg explains that we can overcome defensiveness when we stop hearing criticism (even if it was intended) and begin, instead, to listen for unmet needs. It’s so liberating to see in other people’s behavior and communication a set of unfulfilled needs rather than personal attacks. He calls this “receiving empathically.”

Say a person shouts at you, uses sarcasm or manipulative tactics, or says things that you may experience as inconsiderate and hurtful. As long as you focus on your wounded feelings, the chances of a thoughtful response greatly diminish. Most likely, you end up saying something spiteful and insensitive back, and the defensive-aggressive cycle continues. Or, you may be left not knowing what to say and be accused of refusing to talk. Either way, it seems like a losing proposition.

Rosenberg suggests that instead of focusing on how we’re receiving a message, we can concentrate on the person’s implicitly suggested unmet needs (e.g., desire for acceptance, safety, order, appreciation, contribution, trust, etc.). We can thus break the cycle of defensiveness as we communicate back to others what we sense they are feeling (e.g., fear, hurt, worry) and needing. Rosenberg explains, “I think you’ll find people to be less threatening if you hear what they’re needing rather than what they’re thinking about you.”

We may become overly sensitive when we permit ourselves to analyze how others are expressing themselves toward us. In essence, we are burdening ourselves with other people’s imperfect communication patterns. If your intentions have ever been misunderstood – or if you’ve ever done the same when hearing others – you know that even in the best of circumstances, effective communication is not easy. For me, the “aha moment” came when I realized that someone’s ineffective – and at times dysfunctional – communication is more about him or her than about what I may have done or said. The concept may seem deceptively simple.

Choosing not to be defensive

I suppose the first step in incorporating Rosenberg’s approach is recognizing the moment when we begin to experience some negative emotion. That can happen very fast, of course. Albert Ellis says “People are disturbed not by things but by the view which they take of them.” This is another way of saying we can never have a negative (or even positive) emotion unless we first tell ourselves a story (or narrative).

Right after I really grasped Rosenberg’s non-defensive approach, I had the perfect opportunity to practice. My wife and I had planned a special trip to Israel with one of our adult children. I’ve yearned to go to the Holy Land for decades. My wife asked if I had certain dates open in my engagement calendar. I did not. To my surprise, she inquired if the two of them could go without me! My response wasn’t pretty.

I had the opportunity to use Rosenberg’s approach but instead elected to wallow in self-pity. This is the choice we make when we insist on nursing hurt feelings, assigning blame or holding on to resentments.

As soon as we recognize any sort of undesirable emotion, we have several options. Among them are to continue to build on the destructive narrative, or instead to focus on the feelings and unmet needs the other individual may be experiencing. It is not possible to do both at the same time.

This suggests that – at least for the moment – we’ll want to put aside our own needs. If we can pass this first test, we’re well on our way toward successfully using this new technique.

Hearing unmet needs

Had I focused on my wife’s needs first, I might have said something like: “You’re really excited. You found a great bargain, and one of your needs is not to let it slip by?” This would have been an empathetic response and one that would have permitted my wife to expand on, or correct, the accuracy of my perceptions.

Steven Covey taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” People are seldom receptive to hearing our needs until we’ve heard theirs first. To be a truly effective communicator requires both being perceptive of others’ needs, as well as communicating our own. After listening to my wife – thus helping her become receptive to hearing me – I could have said something like: “I have an enormous yearning to go to Israel, too. Can we keep looking for other prospects so we can all go together?”

Marshall’s approach is not a gimmick. It requires a thorough understanding of how to provide such responses tentatively, effectively, and empathetically – as well as knowing what approaches to avoid. For instance, we would do well not to put ourselves as the direct object of another person’s feelings and needs. Thus, we might avoid saying things like “you’re hurt because I…” or “you need me to….” Precise words, mindfulness, and cautious, respectful delivery are prerequisites to effectively incorporating Rosenberg’s approach to receiving empathically.

Inverse I-messages

There are a number of popular approaches to sharing our feelings with others through I-messages (a concept first developed by Thomas Gordon). Some seem more helpful than others. The general idea is that I-messages can be less off-putting than you-messages (e.g., “You make me so angry when…!” or "You are always so..."). When properly constructed, I-messages help us focus – in a non-accusatory manner – on the challenge (or displeasing behavior) at hand, rather than on the personalities. As a result, tensions can be greatly reduced. In this way we’re less likely to respond defensively to perceived disapproval.

Effective construction of I-messages also takes considerable practice and skill. Even the most elegantly designed I-message, nevertheless, still ends up being about us – our feelings and our needs. The Rosenberg method, again, permits us to first focus on the needs of others.

A colleague, Elise Willis, director of the Mediation Center of San Joaquin (Stockton, CA) explained that, in part, the elegance of Rosenberg’s approach is that we’re offering a sort of inverse I-message for the other individual. And that’s precisely what’s happening. Many individuals are hardly aware of their own needs, much less the desirability of composing an effective I-message.

So we can assist them, and ourselves, by first directing our response to the unmet needs behind the hurt, sadness, frustration or negative emotions they may be feeling. The individual who feels heard in this way is then more receptive to considering our needs.

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Gregorio Billikopf, University of California Extension farm advisor, labor management specialist