One way to understand communication is to view it as a people
process rather than a language process. If one is to make fundamental
improvement in communication, one must make changes in interpersonal
relationships. One possible type of alteration—and the one with which this
paper is concerned—is that of reducing the degree of defensiveness.
Defensive behavior is defined as that behavior which occurs
when an individual perceives threat or anticipates threat in the group. The
person who behaves defensively, even though he or she also gives some attention
to the common task, devotes an appreciable portion of energy to defending
himself or herself. Besides talking about the topic, he thinks about how he
appears to others, how he may be seen more favorably, how he may win, dominate,
impress or escape punishment, and/or how he may avoid or mitigate a perceived
Such inner feelings and outward acts tend to create similarly
defensive postures in others; and, if unchecked, the ensuing circular response
becomes increasingly destructive. Defensive behavior, in short, engenders
defensive listening, and this in turn produces postural, facial and verbal cues
which raise the defense level of the original communicator.
Defense arousal prevents the listener from concentrating upon
the message. Not only do defensive communicators send off multiple value, motive
and affect cues, but also defensive recipients distort what they receive. As a
person becomes more and more defensive, he or she becomes less and less able to
perceive accurately the motives, the values and the emotions of the sender. The
writer's analysis of tape recorded discussions revealed that increases in
defensive behavior were correlated positively with losses in efficiency in
communication.(1) Specifically, distortions become greater when defensive states exist in the groups.
The converse, moreover, also is true. The more
"supportive" or defense-reductive the climate, the less the receiver
reads into the communication distorted loadings which arise from projections of
his own anxieties, motives and concerns. As defenses are reduced, the receivers
become better able to concentrate upon the structure, the content and the
cognitive meanings of the message.
In working over an eight-year period with recordings of
discussions occurring in varied settings, the writer developed the six pairs of
defensive and supportive categories presented in Table 1. Behavior which a
listener perceives as possessing any of the characteristics listed in the
left-hand column arouses defensiveness, whereas that which he interprets as
having any of the qualities designated as supportive reduces defensive feelings.
The degree to which these reactions occur depends upon the person's level of
defensiveness and upon the general climate in the group at the time.(2)
Speech or other behavior which appears evaluative increases
defensiveness. If by expression, manner of speech, tone of voice or verbal
content the sender seems to be evaluating or judging the listener, the receiver
goes on guard. Of course, other factors may inhibit the reaction. If the
listener thought that the speaker regarded him as an equal and was being open
and spontaneous, for example, the evaluativeness in a message would be
neutralized and perhaps not even perceived. This same principle applies equally
to the other five categories of potentially defense-producing climates. These
six sets are interactive.