Subject-Object Notation: a case study on defensiveness and curiosity

What makes the difference in what someone says in response to criticism? Or even what they think in response to imagined criticism?


Talking about personal growth is easier when you have better language for it. One component of this is using words and phrases that are more conducive to growth mindset. Another aspect is having more nuanced terminology to refer to concepts, to allow us to talk about (and think about!) growth more effectively.

This post is also designed to serve as a standalone introduction to the subject-object distinction which is central to Constructive Developmental Theory, developed by Robert Kegan and others. I’m going to elaborate on that model in future posts and connect it to other models, but this sub-component is helpful on its own. I’ll start with the in-depth example, and then talk about the more abstract model behind it.

Case Study: Moving from Defensiveness to Curiosity

First: what do I mean by defensiveness? I mean a reactive quality that creates a feeling of unsafety or instability and responds out of a place of feeling threatened. It’s often associated with a sympathetic nervous system (stress) response, or a feeling of againstness. This is not a response that’s useful for much of anything. Maybe survival 50,000 years ago. It interferes with learning, because it makes you irrationally averse to integrating others’ perspectives, both casual and in the form of directed feedback, instead preferring to assert personal rightness. It can wreck relationships by causing disagreements to escalate into conflicts then into fights.

Under this definition, we might ask what kind of quality of response you might prefer? What’s the opposite of defensiveness? Hint: it’s not offensiveness. That’s… I’m not even going to go there. Instead, I propose it’s curiosity. Unlike defensiveness, where your mind is closed to new information and insists on proving itself right, in a state of curiosity your mind is open to updating itself and is ready to reexamine its own assumptions. Curiosity also has another specific property we’re looking for here, which is that it’s a broader outlook than defensiveness. This is necessary for what we’re about to do.

Okay. With this distinction highlighted, let’s talk about the qualitatively different experiences between the two ends of the spectrum. The story we’re going to use as an example:

Jamie is on a bus, travelling home for Thanksgiving, when she realizes that she left a bunch of stuff out in the kitchen. Her roommates are likely going to be annoyed.

stage D

Defensive. When you hear feedback or even imagine someone else being critical of you, you immediately start thinking (and perhaps speaking) reasons why that’s invalid and you’re still essentially right. It doesn’t even occur to you that this might not actually get you what you want in the long or short term. Or get you anywhere.

Jamie, thinking to herself: “I mean, I was in a huge rush today… it’s not like I could take the later bus… these tickets are only good for a specific one, not all day… and anyway, Cristina called me when I was about to head out… so it’s not my fault. Besides, she always leaves stuff out.”
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