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Reacting to Threat: What’s Your Style?

You and your partner are just not seeing eye-to-eye on a particular issue. What others might see as a difference of opinion instead feels like a personal attack and, if you and your partner don’t calm down before attempting to talk it out, you are each likely to behave in a way that makes matters worse.

When faced with a perceived threat, some people argue, others simply overreact, and still others push their partner away emotionally. In some cases, people engage in some combination of these reactions, either together or one after the other.

Virginia Satir, in her book The New Peoplemaking (Science and Behavior Books, 1988), identified four “coping styles.” These coping styles —blaming, placating, intellectualizing, and irrelevance—often operate outside of our awareness and do, indeed, make matters worse. Satir advocated that we increase our awareness of these styles and their effects.

Once we are aware, we have the opportunity to be effective rather than reactive by responding to threat in more constructive ways —that is, asserting rather than blaming, listening rather than placating, detaching rather than intellectualizing, and being self-caring rather than irrelevant. An important part of being able to choose is to realize there is a choice.

The following will help you to clarify typical approaches to threat and their more constructive alternatives:

Typical Approaches to Threat

Blaming shifts responsibility for threatening events from us to others. When we are too concerned with the opinion of others, we blame them to protect ourselves from their expected accusations. In the belief that a good offense is the best defense, we substitute anger for fear. Forms of blaming include: discounting, stonewalling, contempt, hostility, nagging, demanding, attacking, abusing, and criticizing.

Alternative: Asserting ourselves means we take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. This means we make “I” statements about our feelings, our views of the situation, and the meanings we attach to events. We talk in a straight and direct manner about these thoughts and feelings.

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Placating shifts responsibility for threats from others to self. By blaming ourselves, we hope to keep the peace and protect ourselves from the expected anger of other people. Giving our personal power away, we avoid confrontation, become anxious, appease others, allow abuse, discount our needs, place others before ourselves, accept blame that is not ours, and give in to unreasonable demands.

Alternative: Listening to others means we are open to learning all that we can about the situation, especially information from others involved in the threatening incident. We act responsibly in the situation by trying to understand how others perceive the situation. We are able to restate the essence of another’s point of view when we have listened.

Intellectualizing diffuses responsibility for threatening events. By being super-rational, we distance ourselves emotionally from uncomfortable feelings. We focus on the objective, sound “intelligent,” lecture, look correct, and behave “appropriately,” all in an effort to conceal what we really feel.

Alternative: Detaching allows us to take responsibility, to separate ourselves emotionally from others by not confusing their reactions for ours. We recognize the differences between “I” and “you,” we are willing to say no to violations of our personal space, and recognize our responsibility for current events.

Irrelevance creates confusion about who is responsible for what by shifting attention to the illogical. When we act “off the mark,” we distance ourselves from uncomfortable situations. Behaving like clowns, we may strive to become the center of attention and distract others by interrupting, acting erratically, behaving inappropriately, doing several things at once, or shifting from one topic to another.

Alternative: Self-caring behavior is relevant, “on the mark,” and focused on meeting our needs. We view our actions as self-first rather than selfish. We appreciate confusion and discomfort as a chance to learn something. Our actions have the purpose of enhancing our lives and taking responsibility for life’s events.

How do you react to threat? Is your approach effective, or would you like to explore an alternative? Keep these questions in mind the next time you and your partner are at odds. An effective response could be the first step on the road to personal growth and improved communication in your relationship.

Reacting to Threat: What’s Your Style?

Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D

APA Reference
Gross, S. (2020). Reacting to Threat: What’s Your Style?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.