The Double-Edge of Deflection

by Melissa Karnaze

silver metal shieldHave you ever been one for debates? Or have you always thought discussion to be much more productive? When you debate, you talk at. When you discuss, you talk to. When you debate, you listen so you can formulate a counter-argument. When you discuss, you listen so you can understand a point of view.

In a debate, good points made by the opponent are deflected. It doesn’t matter how good they are or if they are dead right true—they have to be deflected so that the debate can drum on through.

And even outside of a formal debate, people still act as if they are trying to win one. They resort to the tactic of deflecting good points—to avoid having to listen to you so that they don’t have to bother with understanding your point of view.

With some people, no matter what you say or how you say it, they will deflect your words right off their backs. They will use the tool of deflection to invalidate you left and right and to convince themselves they are only right.

But like any tool, deflection itself is neither good nor bad—it’s how you use it that counts. Let’s look at both the dysfunctional and functional uses of deflection.

Imagine that you are having lunch with someone special, someone who means a lot to you, who cares about and respects you, and who you would be spending your time with right now if you could. You are sitting in an outdoor café with this person, and the restaurant is busy, but not too busy such that you can’t hear the birds chirping in the park down the street.

Now, as you are taking a bite out of you delicious meal, this person starts to go on about something that genuinely bothers you. It could be that they want to impose their ideals upon you, want to control you in some way, or that they say something that hurts your feelings. It’s not that they meant to do it; it just happened, and your feelings got hurt. (If you can pick a specific sentence or phrase, it will be easier to follow the rest of this article—and if you can pick something specific with ease, it may be a sign that something similar has already been said, which you have not yet addressed.)

Okay, so the other person, the one you enjoy spending your time with, says something that causes you to feel hurt. You put down your fork, take your napkin from your lap, wipe your mouth, and then put the napkin back into your lap. You wait until they are finished talking, and then you say to them, politely, but firmly, that you disagree/ you have been hurt/ you didn’t like what they said to you. You might even explain why if you can.

It’s their turn to respond now. For the sake of this imaginary scenario, they deflect your words right off their back, and here are some things they might say:

Destructive Deflections

    “You are overreacting/ too sensitive/ taking it personally.”

    “This is not about me; it’s about you—you are projecting your ‘stuff’ onto me.”

    “By your reaction I can see you have a lot of repressed anger—why don’t you deal with that first?”

    “This is triggering a lot of fear in you. Don’t worry, once you stop being afraid you’ll see I’m right.”

    “You may not be enlightened/ aware/ conscious/ knowledgeable/ mindful/ smart/ open enough right now to see that I’m right, but some day you will.”

    “I’m sorry I offended you; that’s not my intention. I care about you and respect you, but—(their justification of why they are still ‘right’)”

These destructive deflections serve one purpose: to invalidate your concern, disagreement, and/or your feelings. They are all meant to say: “Hey, there’s nothing here to see—let’s just get back the point that I was making, the point that is right, by the way.”

So we could say that your special someone’s deflection is indirect attack, but it’s more like an attempt at self-defense. Because if they were truly comfortable being who they are, and believing what they believe without needing your validation—they wouldn’t need to invalidate you when you disagree or have an emotional response.

Instead, they would simply address the issue, apologize for giving you cause for hurt, and if necessary, try to understand: (a) why what they said gave you cause for feeling hurt (and if there any misunderstandings that need to be cleared up); (b) how you two can resolve the issue; (c) how you two can come to an agreement, even if it’s an agreement to disagree, and (d) how they can make amends and regain your trust. Why would they do all this? Because they care about and respect you—they don’t just say they do.

Let’s imagine a little further.

So you spoke up about how you were bothered by what your special someone said. And they deflected you. Now it’s your turn.

This time, you deflect, but for different reasons. You deflect so as not to invalidate yourself by passively going along with their diversion tactic. Here are some things you might say:

Constructive Deflections

    “You are not taking me seriously.”

    “You’re dramatizing instead of focusing on what I’ve said.”

    “You’re avoiding what I said when you accuse me of being too emotional to talk with you rationally.”

    “You’re projecting fear onto me instead of listening to me.”

    “By telling me I am not as enlightened/ aware/ conscious/ knowledgeable/ mindful/ smart/ open as you are, you are indirectly putting me down, and I don’t appreciate it.”

    “You’re not really sorry when you still defend your actions.”

These constructive deflections serve one purpose: to express that you don’t appreciate the diversion tactic without getting distracted in the process. They are all meant to say: “Hi, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not biting the bait—because bottom line is you just invalidated my point of view and I’m not going to argue my feelings as if they are point to be debated; they exist, whether you acknowledge them or not.”

Now, the whole point of this imaginary scenario was not to pit you against your special someone. It was meant to bring this concept of deflection close to home, so that you can see how easily it is to slip into the debate game and regard feelings as if they are points to be argued for or against.

This scenario was meant to illustrate the double-edge of deflection:

  • Deflections used destructively serve a diversion tactic so that one’s own point of view remains unchallenged and unquestioned (by themselves, mainly)—and they are not conducive to understanding different points of view, which is necessary for developing empathy and improving relationships.
  • Deflections used constructively serve a protection device so that one does not unnecessarily defend their point of view to anyone else who is trying to invalidate that point of view.

Deflections Delineate Boundaries

When someone deflects, they lay a boundary then and there. That boundary makes it so that whatever you say or do will not get through to them. That boundary may be placed for protection, or from fear. If it is for protection, it is used constructively so as not to expend energy on someone or something that is not worth their time. If it is from fear, it is used to deny other points of view in hopes of “winning” a debate—which really, is insecurity seeping through.

So if you want to master the art of deflection, you need to remember that any deflection forms a boundary, and that that boundary may be constructive or destructive—so lay them down mindfully and watch where others lay down theirs.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Heater March 24, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I like this! I am kind of confused about one of the deflections you mention, though: “You’re not really sorry when you still defend your actions.”

Why isn’t this a destructive deflection? It sounds a lot like telling the other person how they feel and invalidating them. Do you see sorry as something other than a feeling? Or is there something else I’m missing about this statement?

Of course, it’s all contextual, and there’s often a fine line between justifying actions, defending actions and explaining/exploring them (where explaining/exploring is more like a narration and not a justification). But one thing I appreciate about all the other examples in the list is how clearly they’re constructive and informative — “clean,” if you will. This one, not so much — in fact, it seems like it can easily be used to shame and attack, a more nuanced version of “if you loved me, you’d . . .”

Not that I think that’s what you mean, which is I suppose why I’m confused; it does not accord with all the other strong statements on the list.

I look forward to your elucidation!

Melissa Karnaze March 25, 2011 at 9:02 am

Heater, it’s similar to the statements above it because it follows the formula: “You are doing this (instead of doing that).”

“You are defending your actions, instead of apologizing to me for what you did.”

Yes, it’s based on my definition of a genuine apology, as an action.

In terms of invalidation — any time someone says that they’re sorry to you but then they defend their actions as justification or as if to minimize the situation, it invalidates their apology, which means they invalidate your pain.

Denise May 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm

This is so what I am experiencing at the present moment. I am having family issues that cannot be resolved specifically because of deflection. No one wants to take responsibility for their words or their actions so they deflect instead and invalidate everything I am feeling and/or saying to resolve the issue. Now, one issue has become many, in the deflectors’ minds, yet there is only one issue on my mind and until that is resolved or acknowledged, my family and I have parted ways. Very sad.

Theresa March 26, 2013 at 12:29 pm

How about “I’m sorry you feel that way”, is that a destructive deflection?

Jon Winchell October 15, 2013 at 11:28 pm

I’ve noticed that people only want to hear what they want to hear because of losing a debate in reality it’s a reflection of their own insecurities. They also respond by saying everyone has an opinion. In conclusion it was never this divisive and some people are pulling strings and it’s getting worse in this country.

Elisa Yip April 14, 2014 at 4:28 am

Hello Melissa,

Thank you for your wonderful articles. You have a way of writing that brings clarity and constructive management of many tough issues.

I’ve just shared some links with one of my Facebook forum groups (clearly crediting you of course).

Regards,
Elisa

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