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April 12, 2022

Dealing With Defensiveness – #MTtalk Roundup



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Let's admit it, we all get defensive sometimes. "No, we don't!" I hear you say. See what I mean?

Defensiveness is a very human response in certain situations. But what makes us defensive and what can we do about it? And just as important, what can we do when other people get defensive?

Dr Supriya Dhongde.

I've observed that not everything makes us defensive – it seems to be that specific situations or topics trigger defensiveness. For my own part, I'm usually a confident and secure individual, but there have always been some areas where my insecurities get the better of me and I can get defensive.

"I had to learn to allow myself to make a mistake without becoming defensive and unforgiving."  

Lisa Kudrow, American actor

Over time, I've developed the self-awareness to recognize and analyze those insecurities. I've learned to check myself before the temperature rises – but I've learned the hard way.

Boiling Point

I was an outgoing kid (some called me a "tomboy") always keen to play outdoors. My big sister, by contrast, was more comfortable inside the home.

My parents were OK with this arrangement as it worked well for the family – my sister did the household chores and I did any outdoor work. Perfect teamwork!

But issues started to emerge when I got married. My mother-in-law is a great cook – and so are her daughters, son, and husband, too. I quickly found myself the "odd one out" in the family. Cooking was never my strong suit but I tried my best, with little success. I got agitated. Any time the subject of cooking came up I became annoyed – and defensive.

Why Did I Get So Defensive?

When I looked deeper and searched for reasons for my defensiveness, I discovered it was a conflict with my values. I perceived the reaction to my sub-standard cooking skills as a threat – a direct question mark over my potential, as well as a judgment on my parents for their parenting.

Not being able to cook at a high level made me feel inadequate, and I was trying, in my own way, to compensate – to defend myself. It took years to accept myself and my abilities in the kitchen. Eventually, I learned to be happy with "good enough." Now I'm aware of the trap and can sidestep it: I remind myself not to filter feelings of inadequacy through my self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Could my new family have handled it differently? Sure, they could have done more to make me feel welcome and part of the family. But we can all sometimes rile others due to our own insecurities. Or perhaps even by accident – pushing someone without even realizing we've hit a sensitive area.

Whatever the case may be, and whatever side we're on, it’s a good idea to dig deeper to understand the "why" and "what" of it in order to defuse defensiveness. The courage to become vulnerable, and acknowledge the same struggle in others – that's the place to start.

Dealing With Defensiveness

During Friday's Mind Tools Twitter chat, we discussed why people get defensive, and how to deal with defensiveness in a productive way. Here are the questions we asked, and some of the best responses:

Q1. What does defensiveness look like, sound like?

@MarkC_Avgi Defensiveness can be either a shield against attacks or abuse, or it can be a reflection of lack of confidence... but it is definitely for self-protection or preservation in either case.

@SarahH_MT Defensiveness can look like being angry, aggressive, sulky, or shut down. Body language can be closed or exaggerated. When met with defensiveness, it can feel like you're being accused or blamed for something. It's not very pleasant as it closes communications down.

Q2. In your opinion, why do people react defensively?

@ZalkaB For so many different reasons. It can be insecurity, low self-esteem, lack of self-love or simply bias and/or not accepting anything that goes against somebody's beliefs, opinions and world views.

@DrSupriya_MT They want to safeguard themselves from any damage.

Q3. What makes you act defensively?

@MindfulLifeWork Being under-resourced. This can show up as a lack of sleep, food, time, space, finances, peers, friends, etc. When the things I need to feel 'in the flow' are in short supply, the likelihood of feeling wounded and defensive increases.

@MikeB_MT Lack of sleep. Lack of food. Stress over too many deadlines. Being in reactive, rather than active mode. Lack of trust for the person with whom I'm dealing. Misunderstanding their intent.

Q4. When does defensiveness tend to arise? What words/situations trigger it?

@harrisonia When I hear trigger phrases like, "why did you..." or "it's your fault that....", defensiveness tends to arise within me. Both words and tone matter. I've experienced that the level of the tone is directly proportional to the rise in defense.

@ThiamMeka2Gogue Once someone has been belittled, demeaned, threatened, or perceived that they have been, they anticipate that it will happen again, so they tend to be on guard.

Q5. What are some of the consequences of defensiveness?

@BRAVOMedia1 Some of the consequences of becoming defensive: [it] can break down the opening for honest communications and inhibit the situation from becoming resolved. That's what we want – to be understood and to find resolution – right?

@Midgie_MT Consequences include shutting down and not really listening to the other person.

Q6. When does defensive behavior become unacceptable?

@EmaPirciu I don't think it's a matter of acceptable/unacceptable. Not without context, at least. Maybe the behavior that triggers the defensive response is unacceptable in the first place.

@Yolande_MT Defensiveness is completely unacceptable when it escalates to violent language or behavior.

Q7. How do you manage repeated defensiveness by a team member?

@HloniphileDlam7 First a one-on-one to coach and broaden reasoning. Then creating a culture of learning rather than blaming. I find when I share my own mistakes, people become open to admitting their own. But [it's] a process.

@Midgie_MT Changing the way I ask for clarification and choosing my words differently. Have a conversation with the person about the pattern, where my line of questioning is coming from and coach them to develop other more helpful responses.

Q8. How do you defuse your manager's defensiveness?

@Yolande_MT I have in the past told someone that I felt as if they took away my liberty to ask questions because it felt like they got defensive. I emphasised how I felt and not what they did – it's non-threatening.

@Mind_Tools Be assertive by letting them know in a respectful way that you found their reaction uncomfortable to deal with.

Q9. How can our knowledge of other people's values help us to understand their defensiveness?

@MikeB_MT Defensiveness often comes from an internal, personal place. Examining what triggers your defensiveness, being aware of what may trigger it in others, may help you understand defensiveness and build healthier, longer-term relationships.

@SoniaH_MT When we have good 1:1 relationships with colleagues, it helps us to better understand their defensiveness because we'll be able to recall the root of the trigger actions. We'd know right away when something is out of character for them.

Q10. What tactics for avoiding or overcoming defensiveness will you use/share in future?

@DrSupriya_MT More empathy to catch what threat and judgment this person is perceiving right now; how I can be more invisible to create a safe space.

@SarahH_MT My tactics involve getting to know what drives people (their values) and creating a safe conversational culture between us, which is built on trust and mutual understanding. Everything flows from there.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.

Coming Up

Defensiveness is a survival mechanism. Although hope seems far removed from defensiveness, it can also be used as a mechanism to help you get through. In our new Twitter poll, let us know which other word you most strongly associate with hope.


Note that you will need to be a Mind Tools Club or Corporate member to see all of the resources in full.

How to Manage Passive-Aggressive People

How to Be Tactful

Solution-Focused Coaching

Perceptual Positions

How to Manage Defensive People

Empathic Listening

The Johari Window

Transactional Analysis

Dealing With Manipulative People

Building Rapport

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