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Interpersonal Communication

Defensive and Supportive Communication Climates

Gibb's (1999) model of defensive communication climate, which was initially developed to analyze the dynamics of small-group interaction, can also be applied to examine the stability and well-being of interpersonal relationships. Gibb observes that people feel defensive when they perceive that they are under attack. In circumstances similar to what Gottman refers to as negative criticism and contemptuous attitudes that produce defensive reactions, a person who is defensive devotes a significant amount of personal energy to self-protection. When defensive responses arise in interpersonal communications, it is the relationship itself that becomes defensive. Defensive behavior from one party in a relationship evokes defensive behavior on the part of the other. Moreover, this dynamic cycle of defensiveness can intensify.

Josh and his sister arguing.Video View Video View 5.7: Family Communication II: Josh Has a Fight with His Sister

A man appears to be having a defensive reaction to the critical remarks a woman is making to him. Gibb elaborates six patterns of behavior in a relationship that evoke defensive reactions and contribute to the cycle of defensiveness: Evaluation: When we perceive that someone is judging us

  • Control: When we perceive that someone is attempting to change us or impose on us a solution for a problem
  • Strategy: When we perceive that someone is trying to manipulate us or to conceal or disguise his or her true motives
  • Neutrality: When we perceive that someone is indifferent to our feelings and unconcerned about our welfare
  • Superiority: When we perceive that someone assumes that he or she has a higher status or worth than we do or acts in a unilateral manner that shuts out feedback
  • Certainty: When we perceive that someone holds an unyielding and dogmatic position that is not open to dialogue

    Describe Instead of Evaluate

    Figure 5.8
    Figure 5.8
    click to enlarge
    Instead of communicating with patterns of behavior that arouse defensiveness, like those just listed, Gibb suggests using a corresponding set of supportive communication behaviors (see Figure 5.8). For instance, rather than evaluate another person, we might be more effective if we describe a concern. Suppose, as an illustration, that Vivien and Laverne live together. Suppose further that Vivien is irritated by one of Laverne's personal habits—say, leaving dirty dishes in the sink. In place of calling Laverne a slob, an evaluative behavior, Vivien could describe how or why the unwashed dirty dishes create a problem. But it would be Vivien's problem, not Laverne's.

    Use Problem Orientation Instead of Control

    Vivien has a tendency to bark orders such as: Put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher as soon as you finish eating! This is an example of a control behavior that does not give Laverne very much of a voice in deciding what to do. Instead of control, Vivien might use what Gibb calls a problem-orientation. Vivien might seek input from Laverne by asking, "What do you think is a good way to take care of the dishes?" This open up a range of choices and shares decision making. By using a problem-orientation, control is shared and each has a voice.

    Be Spontaneous Instead of Strategic

    Man and woman in kitchen seeming to be having an argument. Spontaneous responses to problems disclose true feelings and motives. Being spontaneous also means refraining from trying to manipulate others. Suppose that the real reason behind Vivien's concern for neatness is insecurity, which is based in the fear that other friends or family members will see the dirty dishes and think that it is Vivien rather than Laverne who is the slob. But, rather than acknowledging those true fears, Vivien would prefer to manipulate Laverne into feeling shame. Consider how the interaction would be much less defensive if Vivien decided to make an honest disclosure by saying: "I get uptight about dirty dishes in the sink. I am afraid that someone else is going to see the mess and think I made it. What if my mother suddenly showed up at the door? She would think I was a slob."

    In being spontaneous and making this admission, Vivien has taken a big risk. Laverne should also respond by being supportive. Sometimes, the best way to be supportive is simply to say "I understand." For this response to be effective, however, it needs to be genuine.

    There are many situations like this one in which the best course of action is to explore the real source of our own or another's fears. Laverne could simply say "Tell me more about this" and then indicate a willingness to lend a supportive ear. By being a supportive listener, Laverne could help Vivien respond less defensively.

    Think About This Think About This 5.7: Fight or Flight for Laverne and Vivien

    Respond with Empathy Instead of Neutrality

    A woman comforts another woman, showing empathy. Gibb (1999) suggests that when we respond to others with empathy, we signal that we acknowledge and accept their feelings. When we respond with neutrality, on the other hand, we signal that we dismiss or are indifferent to their feelings. By showing empathy, we demonstrate a sense of concern for them and for our relationship with them. If Vivien were to follow the suggestions discussed thus far for using supportive communication behaviors—that is, to describe the problem and explore all of the feelings associated with it—Laverne might be inclined to empathize with those feelings.

    When we respond to situations with supportive communication behaviors, such as demonstrating empathy, we can create a cycle of supportiveness, rather than defensiveness. Supportive behavior from one party in a relationship can evoke the same behavior on the part of the other.

    Regard One Another with Equality Instead of Superiority

    A supportive communication climate is also engendered when we resist the tendency to claim or assert superiority. Instead of taking the upper hand in the relationship, we should strive for equality. Gibb (1999) draws the connection between treating another person as an equal by expressing mutual trust and demonstrating genuine openness to his or her views. Being willing to listen to another person's ideas is a part of the supportive behavior of being problem oriented.

    Returning again to the hypothetical example, Vivien should resist the temptation to claim that the tidier person is the superior person. Defensive responses are interactive. Gibb observes that when we feel we are being evaluated, we will sometimes lash out in response. So, Laverne should also refrain from judging Vivien as being overly concerned with or even ridiculous about the matter of neatness.

    Be Provisional Instead of Certain

    Two men distant from one another seated on a sofa. The final type of supportive behavior identified by Gibb (1999) involves speaking provisionally instead of with absolute certainty. Provisional speech demonstrates open-mindedness and flexibility, a willingness to entertain ideas other than your own. Along that line, being provisional demonstrates a respect for other people's opinions and thus for them, as well.

    Again, we can apply this idea of communicating provisionally to the relationship between Laverne and Vivien. When Vivien is falling prey to the tendency toward certainty, for instance, Laverne hears phrases such as: "You must clean up those dirty dishes, right now!" The words "must" and "now" and the issue of a command to Laverne are examples of certainty. But, how would the dynamic of their relationship change if Vivien qualified the statement by phrasing it this way? "When you get a chance, I would like it if you cleaned up the dishes."

    At other times, beyond the example given here between Laverne and Vivien, we may trap ourselves into certainty when we resist hearing arguments or facts that would cause us to reassess a position we hold. This is a hallmark of a dogmatic thinking that goes with the attitude of certainty. To respond by being provisional rather than with certainty would call us to be open to examining our own views and assumptions.

    When the practice of provisionally stating your views is joined with the other supportive behaviors—that is, describing issues and concerns, using a problem orientation to explore alternatives, stating feelings and disclosing motives in a genuine and spontaneous manner, conveying empathy, and expressing a sense of equality—you will create a supportive climate of communication.

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