You First Have to Understand Why People are Defensive
People are defensive for one main reason: theyre feeling attacked. I know youre likely thinking, But how is that possible? I approached my partner so nicely! or How could my mom feel attacked when all I do is walk on eggshells with her? Or I was so patient and calm when I spoke to my coworker!
That all might be very true but, youve got to remember, attack is in the eye of the beholder.
For example, I was speaking with a client the other day and gently said something about how she needed to take responsibility for her angry outbursts with her children. Next thing I knew, shed burst into tears. She angrily told me she felt berated and shamed by me and that she wasnt paying to be bullied. Bullied? Moi?! I was dumbfounded for a moment because how she was reacting was so far from how I was feeling or what my intentions were!
Now, in this situation, it was actually pretty easy for me to see what was going on (after all, Im a trained psychologist and it was simple not to take it personally) but you can see how hard this same situation would be with someone youre close to or with whom youve had a history of defensiveness and anger.
It took some time, but I was able to speak to her (using the tools Im going to teach you today) in such a way that she was able to see her over-reaction and misinterpretation of what Id said. As the conversation continued, she admitted that she was often told that she blew things out of proportion.
What was really going on was that my lovely client was ashamed of the way shed acted with her children. She felt embarrassed and vulnerable speaking to me about it and letting me see her true self. When I talked about her taking responsibility, she felt attacked as all that shame came to the surface and she lashed out defensively.
Defensiveness is just that: an ego defense meant to protect us from harm. Its a suit of armor we put on so we dont have to listen, acknowledge or change our own behavior. If I think of myself as a good person and you point out something that I did wrong, my ego tells me not to listen to that (because if Im a good person, I wouldnt have done this wrong thing). Since I am a good person, that means whatever youre telling me is bullshit and I get to deny it in some way.
People are defensive because taking responsibility for their actions feels scary either because theyre worried about you not loving them (insecurity) or because theyre worried about being abandoned or rejected for doing something wrong.
And believe it or not, the vast majority of people are not trying to be defensive. Defensiveness is largely unconscious; its just a knee-jerk reaction because its a learned behavior thats become a habit.
Defensiveness Shows Up in Obvious and Sneaky Ways:
- Anger and turning it around. When you confront your partner with something they did, they say something like, You say I dont listen? What about you?!?! You never listen to me!
- Gaslighting. There are also some defensive behaviors that fall in the gaslighting category like, Why are you always criticizing me? or maybe minimizing: You shouldnt be so upset about this.
- Acting the victim: Maybe the other person takes too much of the blame. You tell your partner you dont like something they did and they say, I know. Im such a piece of shit. Next thing you know, youre taking care of them!
- Arguing that what they did was OK because of x, y, and z.
- I can never do anything right around here or I act this way because youre always nagging me!
- Silent treatment. Another way of being defensive is to offer the cold shoulder. Were not having this conversation and Im going to threaten you with silence if you bring it up again.
No matter the reason, its up to you to remember that you co-create all your relationships, including this one with Debbie Defensive. So, its up to you to take responsibility for your side of the street.
How to Deal with a Defensive Person:
Believe it or not, theres actually been a bunch of research on what works best when someone is defensive and heres what we know.
Defensiveness gets worse when people respond to us negatively. If we feel rejected or stigmatized in any way, we get more defensive. However, defensiveness is reduced when we feel secure, respected and valued in our group.
The research recommends emphasizing respect and value for the person, even if you disagree with their views or actions. In addition, its important to provide an opportunity for the person to express their values before talking about a specific problem.
Heres the deal: We humans have a primitive, neurologically wired psychological need to feel valued and included within our primary groups (such as work, friends, and family of origin) as well as with our romantic partners. When someone thinks we did something wrong or tells us something they dont like, this hard-wired need is threatened which drives a defensive response. So, when youre speaking to another person about something you want to address, keep in mind their deep need to belong and be valued, and you can reduce the defensiveness coming at you.
So, with this research in mind, here are my top 3 tips on how to deal with a defensive person:
Tip #1: Timing
One of the biggest issues I see that leads to a defensive reaction is when people choose to have conversations. What have you heard me say 1000 times? You have to connect to correct (and now you really know why given the research)!
The best time to have a conversation is when youre in a good place and feeling connected to the other person. I know you want to avoid harder conversations when youre getting along because youre thinking, Well, I dont want to rock the boat now!?!? But, again, the best time to bring something up and NOT get a defensive response, is when youre getting along well. This is how to deal with a defensive person.
Tip #2: Set that Intention
Before you talk about what you want to talk about, first set your intention out loud. If youre focusing on being effective, you need your intention to be focused on the other person feeling valued and respected. So something like,
- Im excited to speak with you about something because Im really looking forward to us deepening our relationship
- I feel so supported by you and deeply appreciate the many ways you see me and care for me. And, there are some other ways Id also feel appreciated. I wanted to talk about them and also ask you what ways youd like to feel seen and heard that I might be missing. We can start with you if you like.
- I want us to talk about x, and I want you to know that it is my deep intention to listen fully to everything you say. My biggest goal is that you feel heard and understood. I also want you to know that I take full responsibility in this relationship and thats why I want to speak to you. Were co-creating and I want it to be amazing for both of us.
- I want to speak about X, and I want to be clear that my only goal is that we become closer and have a deeper, more loving relationship.
I want to speak about X and my only goal is for us to find a solution together that really fits for both of us. I value you and want you to feel that. For me, it wont be a good solution unless you feel heard and seen. This is crucial if you want to know how to deal with a defensive person.