Listening With Compassion When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed With Defensiveness

By Heather Edwards. Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Are you a good guy wondering why in the world the woman you love is crying? Have you been wondering what in the hell some 30-year-old accusations against some judge you’d never heard of have to do with the trauma in your loved one’s past? Have you watched your social media explode with outrage every time a famous man is accused of, sometimes admits to, and then gets away with impropriety?  Have you been wondering when ‘triggered’ became such a common word in the public lexicon?

From Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein to Brett Kavanaugh, high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct and violence against successful men have ignited an international conversation and created a global confessional in the public sphere. But who’s listening to the women who suddenly find themselves reliving their private traumas even when they’re not making public allegations?

Predominantly other women… but some of us also want to talk to you, dear gentlemen. And if you’ve been blindsided by an onslaught of stories ranging from cat-calling to workplace harassment to rape, you might be asking yourself “Why am I suddenly hearing all of this now? I would never hurt a woman, what am I supposed to say?”

Unfortunately one of the most common responses to women sharing their stories of harassment, assault, abuse, and rape has been #notallmen. This is exasperatingly pointless. We already know that. The woman you love already knows that. In fact, some research shows that it is actually only around 6% of men who attempt and/or successfully commit rape, but that they do it multiple times.

Perhaps you have not had a loved one, or anyone, confide in you that they have been threatened, harassed, attacked, or abused in their lifetimes by the 6%. And I am grateful for that. I am amazed and grateful that there are un-victimized folks still capable of consternation when they find out it happened to someone they love. But that doesn’t mean they know how to respond.

Good news! You do not have to mind-read or divine the ‘right’ response. The right response might be as simple as asking “Do you want to talk about it? Im here for you.”

 It is always okay to ask your loved ones what they need. You can ask “Do you just need to vent or are we problem-solving?” But remember to say it sincerely, with love and ready to deliver.


“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey.


Yes, we all know that interrupting is rude. But if you’re a good man and you’re finding yourself feeling frustrated with the outraged and hurting women in your life talking about their trauma I have a few tips. And the beating heart of each tip is this: don’t get defensive. This bears repeating. Do not get defensive. This is not about you. If a woman in your life is confiding anything in you that falls under the umbrella of gender violence, to use a term from linguist Jackson Katz, she already knows youre a good guy. You don’t need to remind her. And if you do, especially with frustration when her actions are already demonstrating that she believes that enough to feel safe with you, it can feel like an admonishment. If you’re just waiting for your turn to respond with self-defense you will never give her the opportunity to be understood.

Hijacking the conversation to proclaim that your mother raised you properly and your father taught you to respect women is not the point right now. Many people are being victimized a second time as their memories of past trauma float to the surface like a dead body in a lake. It is gruesome and peace-shattering.

What victims and survivors have endured for all of human history only became a collective crisis when powerful men started losing their livelihoods and having their promotions jeopardized. Systemically protected violence was considered a crisis only when rich men began to lose money and prestige.

There’s a good chance that a woman you love is hurting; she might be trying to make sense of pain she’s carried but never acknowledged for decades. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient for everyone. But what we have to remember is that this isn’t a battle of the sexes. Rather, it is good men and good women united together against the very few bad people who do bad things. It really is that simple.

So if you find yourself feeling shocked and defensive when the women in your life talk, cry, or yell about gender violence, I’d like to offer a few alternative scenarios so you can remove yourself from the equation and practice compassionate listening.

And yes, you should reply. But remember, just like any topic, respond in whatever way is normal for you and your wife/girlfriend/friend/sister/coworker. Ask them what they need. Divining the right response is not required to prove your love or compassion or allegiance. They might want a shoulder to cry on, soothing words, protective outrage or practical guidance to help them determine their next steps. Ask her what would make her feel most supported. But if you find yourself feeling defensive while she mentions or divulges any of the following experiences, try these mental redirects and respond accordingly.


  1. These guys I work with are always talking about sex or making vulgar sex jokes and talking about what they want to do to women. Its so disgusting and uncomfortable.


This one is a quick switch. Replace this in your mind with racists or bigots of any kind. They could be making fun of any ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation and it is considered hate speech. So you could respond with, “what a bunch of neanderthals. That does sound gross and uncomfortable. Is there anything I can do to help? I’ll support you if you want to report them. Or do you just want to talk about it? I’m happy to listen.”


  1. My boss/coworker/colleague is sexually harassing me


Many behaviors are not legally actionable but still feel hostile in the workplace. If someone confides in you that their boss is giving female employees unsolicited back rubs, ogling them, or even walking around the office naked, your female loved one might not have any idea what to do. It is not an overt case of soliciting sex in exchange for a promotion. So what should she do?


So ask yourself how you would respond if someone you found out your child was being cyber-bullied. No one has overtly threatened this love one or physically harmed them. But the hostile climate of their daily life is taking a quantifiable toll on their quality of life and their productivity.


Your loved ones deserve to feel safe and valued.


  1. I was sexually assaulted


Replace this in your mind with “Someone mugged my grandma! Your outrage should be immediate. “Who would do such a thing?! Is she ok? Can I help? No part of you would wonder how much she’d had to drink or what she was wearing or if she was walking down a dark alley by herself at 2am. Your anger would be squarely where it belonged – on the mugger who targeted a sweet old lady. Let’s assume the grandma is also a sweet old church-going lady to help you with your compassionate rage and a clear moral line in the sand.


  1. I was raped


Replace this in your mind with: We found out the house fire was arson. Someone attacked our home on purpose. But we dont have enough evidence to prove it or even make an arrest, let alone secure a conviction. 

No one would ever respond to such a horrible story with, “You know not all men are arsonists, right? Are you saying he did it because he’s a man? Well I’ve never burned anyone’s house down, why should I apologize?”

Yes, we as a society have to figure out why the unquestionable majority of violent offenders are men. But when you’re female loved one is confiding in you, it’s not about defending your character. It’s about listening with compassion. Empathy is difficult across a chasm this wide, but listening without being defensive is possible. Until you can remove your gender from the conversation try listening with these switches ready to flip. The women you love deserve it, and they could really use a sympathetic ear right now.

You don’t have to fix anything, and you don’t have to apologize for what other men have done wrong, but you also don’t need to get defensive. Love your loved one in the way that works best for them and for your relationship. We thank you in advance.

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