3 Ways To Be Less Defensive

Humans are protective creatures. When someone calls us out on a belief, our first instinct is to become defensive. We end up alienating those who have challenged or questioned our beliefs.

Let’s imagine as a child you were taught that people get what they deserve, no matter the circumstance (also known as the just-world theory). You’re now an adult and your friend laments how unfair life can be. You pridefully say people get what they deserve. Your friend aggressively rejects that statement as false and proceeds to explain why your belief is wrong.

It’s game on. The two of you slug it out as if it was Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century.

Defensiveness is a massive barrier to open dialogue. If we desire to engage in meaningful conversations, then we must learn to combat our defensive inclinations. Below are three strategies to become less defensive, and in the process, avoid an Ali vs. Frazier scenario.

1. Separate Your Beliefs From Your Identity

Identity, in simplest terms, is how you see yourself. Part of how you see yourself is dependent on the beliefs you hold. One could say your identity is dependent on your beliefs. Why is this problematic?

If you attach your identity to your beliefs, you’re putting a lot on the line. When your friend attacks your argument of a just-world, it feels as if he’s attacking your identity. This is why we hold on for dear life to our beliefs. When our beliefs are attacked, it feels as if our identities are being attacked as well. With this mindset, you will never concede a belief which has been dismantled because if you do, you’re giving up your identity. And no one wants to give up their identity.

The solution? Separate your identity from you beliefs. Therefore when your argument doesn’t hold up, your identity doesn’t fall apart. Denouncing your belief is not a death sentence to your identity.

2. Seek Truth In The Opposing Argument

“In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story”

Walter Cronkite

The old adage goes that there are three sides to every story: your side, the opposing side, and the truth. If truth is what you seek, then you should be open and receptive to the counterargument. Apart from extreme circumstances, you can find truth in the counterargument, even if you believe that truth is surrounded by a pack of falsehoods.

Take the counterargument’s belief and combine it with your belief. This will bring you one step closer to the truth. Life isn’t black and white. Truth lies somewhere in the gray. And the only way to get to the gray is by identifying the truth that exists from all sides.

3. Check Your Ego

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid”


When engaging in an argument, it may feel as if our pride is on the line. This is related to the first point — separate your beliefs from your identity. It’s also related to the fact you must simply check your ego. If you value being right over seeking truth, you’re in for quite a struggle.

The ego tells you that your personal truth is the absolute truth. The ego desires to be right, because it will affirm your intelligence, superiority, and whatever else you want to tell yourself. Unfortunately nobody possesses the absolute truth. Only by checking your ego can you open your mind to opposing ideas. Check the ego and away we go!

Pursue Truth

The three strategies previously mentioned will help lower your defensiveness. But once we lower our defensive tendencies then what?

Instead of defending yourself, pursue the truth. Much of what we believe to be true is either incorrect or incomplete. Therefore, go into every interaction with the intention of finding truth. We should pursue truth the same way we pursue the things in life we most desire. You will be too busy pursuing truth to even think about getting defensive.

Drop your defensiveness, seek truth, and forget the rest.

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Why Assumptions About Others Aren’t Worth It


Don’t make assumptions about people.

This is advice we hear all the time.  In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz provides four lessons (agreements) for life, one of which is to never make assumptions about anything.  Ruiz spends a quarter of his book (yes a quarter) disowning assumptions and explains how they are damaging for yourself and the people around you.

Ok great don’t make assumptions about others, let’s all go on with our days.

That would normally be the end of this post, but unfortunately all of us, at one time or another, have succumb to the assumption bug.  It’s too easy to sit back and make assumptions about others.  We all do it.

In order to effectively resist the urge of assumptions, we must think about them through a risk and reward lens.

Risk and Reward

Risk and reward is a tool we use to dictate our decisions and actions.  The best decisions involve minimizing risk while maximizing the potential reward.  Put another way, the best choices create the mantra “everything to gain, nothing to lose”.

Financial investors invest in stocks low in risk but high in reward.  Gamblers wage low bets that have the potential for high payouts.  Shoot for the moon—as long as you have a safety net to fall back on.

When it comes to assumptions, the mantra should be “everything to lose, nothing to gain”.  There is massive risk with very little to no reward.  Let’s dive a bit deeper by breaking down the limited rewards and the numerous risks to assumptions.

Assumption Rewards

The greatest reward for having a correct assumption about another person is getting to say “I told you so”.  I told you he works for the government.  I told you she’s the child’s babysitter.  I told you she’s a junior associate at the company.  See, I told you so and was I right.

Is saying “I told you so” really a reward though?  From your ego’s perspective it is.  An accurate assumption feeds directly to your ego.  Jumping to a correct conclusion before others can give one a sense of superiority and being ahead of the curve.

If your ultimate goal is to look smarter than your peers, then continue on with the assumptions.  Keep in mind though, there is far greater risks to operating this way.

Assumption Risks

Below, I’ve identified three major risks when it comes to making assumptions about others.

1. Embarrassment

If you assume something that turns out to be false, it can be quite embarrassing.  You see a man with a younger looking woman and you assume it’s the man’s second go around at marriage.  He must have suffered a mid-life crises and this is his way of making things right.  You ask the man about his beautiful wife, only to learn the woman is his biological child.

Swing and a miss.

Now you look like a complete moron in front of this guy.  You’ve made an assumption that has backfired and now you are trying to figure out how to end this unpleasant conversation.

2. Hurt Feelings

Imagine you’ve started a new job. On the first day at work you meet a gentlemen who you assume is a junior employee.  You ask him how recently he started at the company and his response is he’s the founder and CEO.


Unfortunately the founder deals with this false assumption on a daily basis.  As a result, he deals with self-doubt, which is enhanced by your false assumption.

3. Confusion

Ever had the experience of listening to a long story, only to be confused the entire time?  Usually there’s one piece of information you assumed to be true, which caused the confusion in the first place.

If a friend tells you a story about somebody, it’s easy to make an assumption about that person to fill in the details.  Though we have powerful imaginations, the things we choose to imagine about others don’t always reflect reality.

The Assumption Wager

Once you understand assumptions through a risk and reward lens, you come to realize it’s almost never worth it.  Making assumptions about others is like placing a $100 bet and getting $102 back.  The reward is a net $2 gain and the risk is losing $100.

Would you place this bet?  Hopefully the answer is no.  And if you’d say no to a $100 bet with a $2 payout, then you should say no to assumptions.

Either you’re right about somebody and you get to say “I told you so”, or you’re wrong and you risk embarrassment, hurt feelings, and confusion.

The choice is yours.

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How to Explain Anything to Anybody

Have you ever been tasked with explaining a complex or highly detailed idea to another person?  Imagine your close friend inexplicably says “I’ve never seen Star Wars, what’s it about?”.

First of all, why hasn’t your friend seen Star Wars?  That’s a separate matter which must be addressed offline.  The real question is how do you explain a mega movie franchise that has spanned over five decades?

Poor Star Wars Explanation

Without giving it much thought, you may jump right in and say the following: “So there’s this guy named Luke Skywalker and he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi who’s a Jedi master.  Obi-Wan teaches Luke the Force and they get chased around by the evil empire led by Darth Vader, who actually turns out to be Luke’s father….”.

Your friend interrupts your Star Wars monologue and asks what the Force is.  Unless your friend has the whole afternoon to spare, there isn’t going to a satisfactory end to this conversation.  The only way to explain something this complex is using the Communication Sandwich Strategy.

The Communication Sandwich

This strategy is broken into three components.  Just like a sandwich, the first and last layers are the same, while the middle portion varies.

1. Opening Summary

No matter what it is you’re explaining, you should open by summarizing the information in one to two sentences.  Your opening summary is the most important step as you never know how long the person you’re talking to is willing to listen.

The listener could lose focus or interrupt you with a question.   If you ramble too long, the key information is lost and the listener will be less inclined to listen.  Your goal should be to get through the opening summary without the listener losing focus or interjecting with a question.

Going back to Star Wars, my opening summary would be: “Star Wars is about the conflict between the rebellion (the good guys) trying to fight for their freedom against the evil empire (the bad guys) that takes place in a futuristic space setting”  (editor’s note: I realize Star Wars has a million interpretations, please let me know how you’d summarize Star Wars!).

2. Detailed Description

If you managed to get through the opening summary and your listener doesn’t have a look of bewilderment, nice job!  From that point either the listener can ask clarifying questions, or if there aren’t any immediate questions, you can jump into the details.

Depending on what you’re explaining and how engaged your listener is, you must decide how much detail to provide.  If I’m explaining Star Wars to somebody who couldn’t care less, I could limit or cut out this step entirely.  But if the listener is deeply engaged, I’d go ahead and talk all about Jedi Knights, the Force, the Death Star, Darth Vader, and our fan favorite Jar Jar Binks (don’t hate).

3. Closing Summary

Once you’ve explained the details it’s critical to wrap it all up.  As smart as we all are, none of us can remember everything that was explained in one sitting.  You must ask yourself: what do I want the person to remember from this conversation?

Based on the serial-position effect, we tend to remember the first and last pieces of information in a series the best.  Therefore end your explanation with how you started.  Summarize what your topic is at its core.

Once I’m done explaining all the intricacies of Star Wars, I wrap up by repeating elements of my opening summary. I’d say something like: “Star Wars is about the conflict of good vs. evil that takes place in a futuristic space setting.”  Repeating the main idea will ensure the listener doesn’t lose sight of the most important information amid the many details.

Beyond Star Wars

The communication sandwich strategy can be used in countless scenarios.  Teachers can use it when explaining an academic concept, corporate leaders can use it when explaining their company culture, and referees can use it when explaining the rules of a game.

Life can get complicated.  That’s why it’s critical we understand how to take the complexities of life and transform those ideas into simple chunks others can understand.  Simplifying complexities is the key to communication.

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Appreciating The Best Of People

One of my all time favorite quotes is from the transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He famously said:

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him”

I love this quote (with the exception of male bias) because it explains that no matter who you cross paths with, every individual has an insight or experience that which you do not.  By realizing every person has something to offer, you create the open mindedness to learn from any and all people.

Pertaining to people we like, it’s easy to learn from those we respect.  Think of one of your closest friends.  Your friend, like all human beings, has flaws.  You appreciate all the great aspects of your friend, while tolerating or even learning to love their flawed characteristics.

But what about people we don’t see eye to eye with?  We have a tendency to focus on the bad aspects of the person, while downplaying what could be seen as a redeeming quality or an insight you could learn from.

Below I’ve provided a rapid fire of examples featuring different kinds of people that fall under this category.  These people include public figures and acquaintances you know in your everyday life.

Next Door Neighbor – Generous person BUT never stops talking

Professional Athlete – Great teammate BUT very cocky

High School Math Teacher – Incredible sense of humor BUT is bad at math

Crazy In-Law – Wonderful pastry chef BUT believes in all conspiracy theories

It’s easy to view these people and only focus on their negative aspects.  It would be a shame to not learn from the good these people have to offer.  Instead of the negatives, walk away observing the right things.

One trick to focus on the good of people is to flip the positive and negative aspects in a statement.  The word “but” is usually used after a redeeming quality, but right before acknowledging somebody’s flaw.  For example, “He has an incredible sense of humor but is bad at math”.  It’s easy to ignore his sense of humor once we get to the “but” of the statement.  Anything said after “but” devalues what was said beforehand.

To fix what we think about our high school math teacher, simply switch the order of the sentence to the following: “he is bad at math but has an incredible sense of humor”.  By restructuring the statement, we’re more likely to value the teacher for his humor.  The most profound piece of a statement is how it ends, therefore end with the positive aspect to remember the person by.

Call to Action

Think of somebody in your life that you believe is unintelligent, uncharismatic, unlikeable, or just plain annoying.  Next identify the aspect you appreciate about that person.  There are two benefits from performing these steps.  One is you learn to value and appreciate all people.  Secondly, through the act of observing positive traits in others, you yourself can better implement those traits or lessons into your own life.

Bottom line: humble yourself when evaluating other people.  To pass up on the special aspects of another person would be doing that person and yourself a disservice.    Always remember that no one is special but everyone has something special to offer.

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Hierarchy of Conversation

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Ever wonder why in some instances a conversation is incredibly engaging and at other times you just want to punch the person talking?  Why some conversations seem absurdly dry while others have you entranced, wondering where the time went?  Typically when speaking with an individual or a group of people, you generally speak about one of three things: people, events, or ideas.

There are always appropriate scenarios to discuss people, events, and ideas.  But I believe our buddy Eleanor Roosevelt is onto something.  Let’s dig a little deeper.

Talking About People

According to Eleanor Roosevelt if you find yourself talking about people all day you’re a “small mind”.  Congratulations give yourself a pat on the back!

In all seriousness though talking about people isn’t the worst thing, as long as you’re talking about others for the right reasons.  Unfortunately people spend a lot of time talking about people, famous or not, for the wrong reasons.  One of the not so pleasant conversations is discussing those who rub you the wrong way.  You might tend to gossip or say things about somebody, that if present, they would not appreciate.  On the flip side you may talk about people because, wait for it……your life isn’t that interesting.  By talking about other people in some instances, you are vicariously living your life through others.  Waking up each day dying to know what’s new in the life of Beyoncé is not good use of your time or your life.

Talking About Events

Alright so you’ve realized talking about people isn’t necessarily the most productive conversation.  Now it’s time to talk events.  Events include such things as historical events, personal experiences, and current events.  Discussing events, in many instances, includes people.  Instead of talking about people though, we are discussing the dynamics between people that make up the event.  Now we’re talking multilayered concepts.  This includes people and their actions that make up the event.  It’s interesting to discuss with others how past events, whether personal or historical, influence our current lives.

Talking About Ideas

This is the holy grail of conversation.  If you really want to understand somebody’s true values and how they see the world, discuss ideas.  What exactly do I mean by ideas?  Basically ideas are things that are intangible.  An easy way to get to an idea is by asking the “why?”.  There are tons of examples: Why do people do bad things?  Why did Kanye West interrupt Taylor Swift at the VMAs?  Why is Game of Thrones the most popular show?

The beauty of discussing ideas is it’s completely subjective.  There is no right answer to answering why people do bad things.  Therefore there is no obvious end to the conversation.  That’s why we’ve been discussing these same concepts for generations.  If there was a definitive answer we’d all agree and that’d be the end of it.  Best of all, discussing ideas reveals a lot about the motives, values, and purpose of the people you’re speaking with.  It’s a great way to reveal what makes those around you tick.


Whether you’re at the family dinner table, out with friends, or on a first date, it’s a good exercise to think about what types of things you talk about.   Talking about people and events are a safe bet, but discussing ideas push us to better understand the world around us.  While it may seem beneficial to jump straight to discussing ideas,  it’s important to know your audience and gauge what level of conversation is appropriate at a given time.  A good strategy is breaking the ice by discussing people and events.  Once you feel the conversation flowing, begin asking the “why” and spark conversations that get to the deepest levels.

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