Happy Friday! We hope you have learned a lot about Defensiveness and its antidote in this week’s postings. Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we would like to take the opportunity to share an excerpt from an article which cites our research. It may be of interest to you in connection with our current series on Dr. Gottman’s Four Horsemen, especially this week’s discussion of Horseman #2.

In the following interview from Forbes India, we hear from Professor Douglas Stone of Harvard Law, an expert on negotiation and difficult conversations, answering interview questions for Rotman Magazine at the University of Toronto. The topic is “blind spots.”

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Q: We’ve all heard of literal blind spots, but what is a “behavioral blind spot?”

A: These are things that we can’t see about ourselves, but which others do see.  When someone tries to give us feedback in a blind spot, we usually reject it as simply wrong – not because we’re being irrationally defensive, but because, to us, it actually seems wrong.  It leaves us feeling confused, because we wonder what would cause others to give us feedback that is so off target? Are they jealous, petty, naïve, or political?  As we sort through what would motivate the other person to give us such feedback, we move further and further from considering how the feedback might be useful to us.

Q: What causes blind spots?

A: There are two key causes.  The first is that we can’t see ourselves. We spend a lot of time with ourselves, so in one sense, we know more about ourselves than anyone else could ever know; but there are things about ourselves that we literally can’t see, such as our facial expressions and our body language.  Even our tone of voice is hard to judge.  So the very data that is most obvious and present to others is what is missing for us.  We communicate a tremendous amount through expressions and tone, especially regarding our emotional state.  The merest squint can communicate, “I doubt that,” even as we’re saying, “that sounds right.”

For example, John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington who studies relationships, found that eye-rolling correlates with a higher divorce rate.  Think about it: when you roll your eyes, you are aware that you’re frustrated or disgusted, but you are unaware that you are rolling your eyes.  You are unaware, then, that you are communicating your emotions to your spouse, but your spouse is quite aware.

A second kind of blind spot is our impact on others, which again, we cannot see, because these impacts occur inside the minds and hearts of the other person.  We have indirect evidence of it, but it’s easy to misinterpret.  “Surely, she knew I was joking,” we think;  or, “I can’t imagine what I said upset him; it wouldn’t have upset me.”  Sometimes we’re right, but often we’re wrong.

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Stone makes some excellent points. 

When we become defensive in a conversation with our partner, we react to their words without listening to what they’re saying. More often than not, we attempt to ward off the perceived attack by turning the tables on them. “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.” Well, that certainly escalated quickly.

Remember that non-verbal cues are constantly exchanged in conversation, often picked up subconsciously by our brains while we are busy processing something else in the interaction. Whether we realize it or not, they are vital to our interpretation of the speaker’s intent. Tone, body language, facial expression, and other external effectual signs are often internationally recognizable, not particular to any cultural or ethnic group.  We can all read eye-rolling as contempt, as Stone mentioned above, and feel a listener’s turned-away body language as a sign of withdrawal. However, other non-verbal cues are not as recognizable. You may not even be aware that you are doing it. 

We urge you to heed Douglas Stone’s words, and to take his message to heart in your future conflict discussions with your partner. We may have the best intentions when we come into a conversation, but even the most positive attitude cannot last in the face of serious misunderstanding. Though you may have your partner’s interests at heart, if he/she misinterprets your message, you’re likely on your way to Horseman Hell:  criticism can evoke a defensive response, followed by a contemptuous statement, leading to emotional withdrawal and stonewalling. Keep your focus on avoiding the first two, and you can hold off the rest more easily! Not to worry – we will begin our discussion of contempt on Monday.

Practice paying attention to your responses and those of your partner this weekend. Take time to work through Wednesday’s exercise on accepting responsibility and see the benefits of your results – watch your relationship begin to feel safer, more stable, and more intimate than ever.


More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness & Blind Spots
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.