Disclaimers: Alleviate Defensiveness

A good number of folks have told me that I communicate well in a way where I'm able to convey my opinions and ideas with both a firm stance and listener sensitivity while also calming any feelings of defensiveness. Although communicating effectively comes fairly naturally to me (and I feel really lucky that it's like second nature), I see many others struggle with it. And that's okay--this social skill is something that can be developed with a little guidance.

I'm sure you've had instances where you're talking with friend who's upset, and when you try to help her/him out, she/he snaps! She/he gets defensive even though you're coming from a good place with well-intentioned support. Or maybe a friend approached you to ask your advice, but then gets upset when tell you her/him them exactly what she/he asked for. And you might be frustrated wondering why you can't seem to get any opinions, advice, or thoughts out without invoking an unnecessary argument.

It's not that your advice is bad, it might just be your delivery.

The reason why I don't often find myself in a heated, angry argument is because of disclaimers. I freaking love disclaimers! I emphasize and value them because they have worked wonders in creating open-minded, inviting conversations without verbal gridlock or emotional frustration.

So here it is! Why disclaimers work for me.

*Disclaimer: I'm not saying this is the only or right way. I'm only sharing what has consistently worked for me and has also worked for my friends (after following my advice). If you find a better method that works for you, that's great! Everyone has a different personality, set of values, and reactions--but this is only meant to be taken into consideration as an option if you feel like you don't have other answers. Feel free to personalize to fit your needs, and remember that this is not a one-size fits all solution.

Acknowledge

Always start your disclaimer with acknowledgement. When you acknowledge someone, you're letting your listener know, "Hey, I understand you and I feel your situation." Please note that the below examples should only be used authentically and truthfully. If you haven't personally experienced someone else's situation, don't claim to know what it's like. If you have, by all means, empathize.

Examples:

  • "Dude, that really sucks."
  • "I feel you."
  • "I can't fully understand what that might feel like."
  • "I know what it's like, and that's shitty."
  • "I'm sorry this is happening to you."
  • "So (repeat what they said). Just making sure I fully understand the story."

If you've properly acknowledged your listener, then your advice comes from a place where you've leveled with her/him. No one likes feeling like they're being told what the right thing is by someone who doesn't understand the full story. When conversations lack acknowledgement, the listener feels like she/he hasn't been properly heard or like the full contextual picture isn't understood. When you let your listener know that the advice you’re giving is coming from a place of awareness and understanding, then you're pretty much free to cater or personalize your message to the person and situation at hand. People are typically much more receptive to advice or opinions when you acknowledge.

Be Objective, be obvious

After you've acknowledged your listener, it's important to structure your statements from a place of objectivity and honesty. It doesn't matter if you think you have the right answer or think you know more than your listener. Because even if you strongly believe that's what's true, that's great, but...

IT ISN'T ABOUT YOU. IT'S ABOUT THEM.

Your friend's problem is more important than you trying to prove a point. If your friend has approached you in an hour of need, this is neither the time nor place for you to harp your opinion. Stay objective. There are ways to get your point across without being overbearing.

Even if you think you're being obvious by assuming certain things are implied, chances are you're not. Make all implications explicitly known by verbalizing these key things:

  • "I don’t have all the answers."
  • "This is just my subjective opinion."
  • "Can I give you my two cents on this, if that's cool with you?"
  • "My experience is not a blanket experience."
  • "Simply use my subjective opinion to your liking."
  • "I only know your side of the story, but these are just my observations from what I’ve heard from you."
  • "Again, this is not fact but just my opinion."

When you verbalize the obvious, people are way more receptive to listening. Why? Because you’ve positioned your opinion as extending a new perspective instead imposing your opinions or will onto your listener. When you don't verbalize obvious statements like, "This is my opinion with limited information from one party," your listener feels like you're telling her/him what to do or feel, and that you, as a distant outsider, know more about her personal situation than she/he does.

Why it works

The reason why I always start with a disclaimer before stating any sort of opinion is because it often soothes the other person’s defensive attitude. Listeners are then more apt to receiving advice instead of feeling the need to defend themselves. All anyone really needs is to have their pain acknowledged and empathized with before hearing tough love. When you put out a disclaimer, you level with people, make them feel like they’re not alone, and that they’re understood. When you put out a disclaimer, you subconsciously address and resolve any notions they may have thought in their head like:

  • "This person doesn’t understand my situation."
  • "They have no idea what they’re talking about."
  • "They think they know the answer/all the answers."

And when you address those thoughts before they can even say it aloud, they feel like you understand them so well that you can practically read their thoughts. When your listener feels like their situation has been thoughtfully assessed, they’re more likely to listen to you because you've established you have a good understanding about the gravity of their problem, and how they feel. Offering advice after a disclaimer often warrants a feeling that you’re coming from a place of objectivity, making your opinion valued and respected. Your listener won’t feel suspicious that you’re being biased or "saying things just to make them feel better."

Just a reminder

  • Acknowledge
  • Be object
  • Be obvious
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