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The Primal Roots of Blame, Defensiveness, and Reactivity

Tammy Lenski’s Conflict Zen Blog

Handling blame, defensiveness, and high reactivity during conflict can challenge both the informal mediators and professional conflict resolvers among us. I’ve found that the “primal lens” for considering possible roots of these behaviors to be really helpful and want to share it with you.

Eons ago, being ostracized from your tribe meant, in all probability, death. You’d be left alone to find sustenance and defend yourself against wild animals for whom you were sustenance. It’s not hard to imagine that humans of that era would do everything they could to avoid being left out, quite literally, in the cold. Being part of the tribe meant food and protection, and social acceptance was vital to one’s very survival.

So it was very important not to be blamed when things went wrong, not to be associated with problems, and not to court disapproval. It is here that lie roots of some of our most deeply embedded reactions to conflict.

When we view reactions to conflict through a primal lens, we begin to see the ways that some of our least desired or nearly automatic reactions may come from a deep hunger to belong and an equally deep fear of rejection. Seen in this light, we realize that…

Reacting with blame can be understood as a deeply ingrained act of self-protection.
Strong defensiveness can be understood as an unconscious attempt not to be rejected.
Stubborn refusal to accept some responsibility for what happened can be understood as an attempt to thwart association with trouble.
Strong reactivity and “big anger” in conflict can be understood as deeply fear driven.
Seen in this light, we can understand that pushing back may amplify the unconscious reaction, that judging harshly may only heighten the unconscious fear of dismissal, that diagnosing them as broken may be very misguided.

This primal lens for understanding conflict is a good one for helping us take a different tack with blame, defensiveness, and high reactivity. It helps us see the equal human in front of us, avoid category errors that blind us to the fuller picture, and stop us from focusing overly much on their supposed flaws.

When a client tells me they fear conflict and we look at the fears behind the fear, they may discover fears like these: Fear of being wrong, fear of being considered unworthy, fear of acting badly, fear of someone not liking us anymore. Fears, in other words, that are strikingly similar to the fears of things that threatened our very survival eons ago.

When a client begins to unpack the experience of getting very angry during conflict, it’s not uncommon for them to talk about feeling they were judged harshly or unfairly blamed. Fear of being shunned by the tribe still lingers in us.

When I am feeling the whispers of defensiveness in my ear, I will ask myself, “What am I trying to protect myself from?” It is some of those answers that informed The Conflict Pivot and my desire to teach others how to attend to ourselves in our less glorious moments.

The primal lens for understanding conflict is not a “theory of everything,” of course. So blame, defensiveness, blame-shifting, and reactivity cannot be fully explained by this one idea.

Neither is it a form of permission for those behaviors. It is the stuff of real irony that the kinds of “hard-wired” reactions we have in conflict, the ones with their roots in the desire not to be ostracized by the tribe, may now increase our chances of exclusion. It is hard to live, work, or play with someone who blames, defends, and reacts strongly as a matter of routine.

The primal lens, like any lens for understanding conflict, is a tool of insight, one that helps keep at bay the judgmental critic in us so that we can bring our best humanity to conflict resolution.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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