Reactivity originates in anxiety over self-expression and the need to be understood and taken seriously.  The more we listen, take serious, and respect young people’s opinions and feelings, the more secure and self-driven they become.  The less we listen, the more intolerant and critical we are, the more insecure and anxious they become.  The more conditioned they are to expect attack or argument, the more they learn to become defensive.  What makes them defensive more than anything else are the things adults tend to do that make them feel criticized, argued with, or ignored.

Emotional reactivity is the number one reason people don’t listen and to be good at working with adolescents means you must be a good, skillful listener.  When someone says something that triggers an emotional attack or withdrawal, understanding goes out the window.  If listening without acknowledging what the other person says turns a discussion into conversational ping-pong, overreaction can turn them into the Battle of the Bulge.  If the war metaphor seems melodramatic, take inventory of your emotions next time you’re engaged in a heated conversations that escalates to a series of attacks and counterattacks.  You’ll leave that conversations feeling wounded and bleeding in a dozen places.

Some kids are so intentionally provocative that it’s almost impossible to listen to them without getting upset.  Then you have those thin-skinned individuals who fly off the handle at the slightest sign of criticism.  Sure, they’re overreactive, but unless you view your relationship to them as expendable, your challenge is finding a way to get through to them.

Defensiveness is a paradox of the human condition: our survival and security seems to depend on self-assertion and defense, but intimacy and cooperation require that we risk being vulnerable.  All human communication – whether in business dealings or personal relationships – reflects the tension between self-expression (talking) and mutual recognition (listening).

How do we resist reacting emotionally or to emotionally charge students?

  1. Anticipate and plan for conflict
  2. Remember that feelings are facts to the person experience them
  3. Empathy kills defensiveness
  4. Listen Harder
  5. Pay attention to your impulses
  6. Concentrate
  7. Don’t blame
  8. Learn to take criticism
  9. Clarify
  10. Give time and space

When someone opens up on you with a mean mouth or listens with feigned interest, it’s natural to blame it on their personality.  When someone reacts with a sudden, verbal eruption to something you say, it’s impossible not to feel this emotional backlash as coming from them.  But reactivity, like everything else that happens in relationships, is interactional.  The only part of the equation you can change is your part.

Try analyzing for a week the amount of your communications that are (1) critical or instructional, (2) avoidant, or (3) affectionate or filled with praise.  To change the climate in most relationships you just shift from (1) or (2) to (3) and see what happens.