“Why are the youth of today so defensive?” Someone asked me this question this week and although it was rhetorical, I’ve been pondering it. I’ve struggled with some hot tempers at work this week too – people stressed before a deadline getting wound up with each other. I’ve felt those emotions too and noticed my own defensiveness. 

As part of my study of conflict I want to explore this question. Defensiveness is a response to perceived or real threat and often causes statements that threatens others, making them in turn defensive. I’ll split the question into three parts: why are people defensive? Why are youths defensive? And are the youth of today more defensive?

Why are people defensive?

The first reason for defensiveness is attribution bias, our tendency to explain away our own mistakes as caused by external and temporary factors (a bad day, someone’s interference) and to blame other people’s mistakes on their character (being insensitive, being lazy). We often tell ourselves stories about other people and their motivations for a certain behaviour: “he’s selfish and uncaring and didn’t acknowledge my work in the meeting because he doesn’t value me” and tell ourselves stories that are more flattering version “she’s so overreacting (typical!). I’ve had a tough week and put that presentation together in a rush, I just made a mistake, why is she so sensitive?!” Before long we talk to these pictures of each other that are in our heads and get angry that the other person’s picture of us is so wrong without recognising that so is our picture of them (from their perspective). The “unfair” attack on us makes us defensive. Their defensiveness makes us frustrated and unfairly criticised for our criticism. 

An outsider can often see the stupid pettiness of these arguments. The people involved are too blinded by emotion and their pictures of each other to see that pettiness. 

To reduce our own and other people’s defensiveness we need to change our pictures of each other. We need to be curious rather than jumping to conclusions. In their book series “Crucial conversations” and “crucial accountability” the Vitalsmarts team encourage you to go into a conversation that could be emotional having prepared by thinking “why might a well meaning, intelligent and considerate person have done that?”  The aim is to answer that in multiple ways, to realise that we are telling ourselves a story about the other person which may not be the only explanation of the facts. 

Why are youths defensive?

Attribution bias is one contributing factor of defensiveness, but it is not the only one. The other main factor is a sensitive ego. There are, I think, three stages in the development of the ego: in the first stage we build the ego up – we build up our sense of self. At this stage our ego is very vulnerable and easily slighted by other people’s comments. We may be boastful or showing off, we care deeply about what other people think of us (even if we try to kid ourselves we don’t!) and we are easily hurt. At this stage we are often defensive in an emotional way. 

In the second stage we have a strong ego and have built a lot of confidence. People in this stage are often “thicker skinned” than those in the first stage: They are less likely to be defensive and hurt by other people’s feelings about them, but also less sensitive to other people’s ego needs. There is often a sense of having achieved a maturity: emotionally and in terms of professional skills and with this a willingness to judge as inferior those who haven’t achieved that. 

There is a third stage, one that Richard Rohr describes eloquently in his book “Falling Upward“, in which we consciously and freely let go of our ego needs, in which we choose to accept criticism not in stoic martyrdom or with bitten-tongue resentment, but in Love. In this stage we can even accept that we don’t have to like ourselves: we accept our flaws simply, patiently and as God does. 

Richard Rohr describes two parts to our lives, one in which we build up our fragile egos and a second part where we let go of our strong one. My experience is that it is more circular than that. As I let go of an old model of myself, a new one arises that is initially vulnerable. In its early vulnerability I am easily hurt and very defensive. Eventually I become more confident and the defensiveness diminishes, but my judgements of other people increases. At some point I realise I can let go that label, that need to be right, and as I do so I accept both myself and others. That opens my eyes to a deeper truth, and being human, I personalise that truth in a new model of myself and the cycle repeats. My moments in the third stage are fleeting and all too temporary, but they are also sufficiently real for me to know they are true. 

(If that was all too spiritual, I also have a more prosaic model – I started as a physicist and initially went through a defensive stage about my physics ability, then I got more confident (less defensive but more arrogant), and eventually sufficiently confident not to worry about criticisms, at which point I was promoted into management and I went through a defensive stage about my management ability and the cycle repeated until I let go of needing to be right, at which point I was promoted to being a leader…)

Despite this circle, there is a component of age. The young have been through this cycle less often and less consciously than the old. It is probably not just the youth of today who are extremely defensive, but the youth of any age. 

Why are people today more sensitive?

I started this blog with the question I was asked rhetorically about why the youth of today are so defensive. I’ve suggested so far that it is a combination of attribution bias making anyone defensive and the specific ego needs of the young making youths defensive. 

And yet, the questioner had also noticed something about today. We see a lot of open defensiveness. Part of this is our new medium of communication: the comments threads on Facebook or newspaper articles do not bring out the best in people and so many of us spend hours every day reading them. Does that tone spill into our more human interactions too?

But my observation of the defensiveness at work this week (including my own) showed another modern malaise: stress. Far too many of us are overwhelmed by busyness, by a continuous stream of things to do, by information overload, by overflowing email inboxes. We are all running at the edge of our ability to cope and it takes only the slightest trigger for that stress to flip over the edge to the point where it comes out in our interactions with other people. Maybe we are more defensive nowadays because it is a stress response. 

So, to conclude, if we want to break down conflicts caused by defensiveness we need to acknowledge the stories we are telling ourselves that make us purer and them nastier than we really are. We need to build a strong enough ego and then freely release it. We need to insulate ourselves from the aggressive patterns of Internet comments threads, probably by limiting our time on them and we need to let go of our busyness and stress. 

None of those steps is easy. We will all stumble at some point in that. So we should also learn to forgive ourselves and each other for the defensiveness that remains. 

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