How to Manage Defensive People

Lowering Defenses by Building Trust

How to Manage Defensive People - Lowering Defenses by Building Trust

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Coax your people out from behind their defensive walls.

Raoul was dreading running a performance appraisal meeting with one of his team members, Sandra. He had negative feedback to give her about her last project, and he had a feeling that she wasn't going to take it well.

On a previous occasion, they nearly got into an argument when Sandra said the criticism she received was unfair. She blamed other people, dismissed Raoul's comments, and stopped listening. In other words, she got defensive.

Just thinking about another potential confrontation made Raoul feel anxious and angry – he was even becoming defensive himself.

We all take things personally sometimes, especially when we receive negative feedback or criticism. When we haven't performed well, we might see our faults and failings, but then try to defend ourselves against an "attack" that highlights them.

Working with someone who is always defensive can create tension, decrease productivity, and make effective communication impossible. Fortunately, you can often do something about this. In this article, we'll look at the causes and signs of defensiveness, and we'll explore ways that you can manage defensive people effectively.

What Makes People Defensive?

Defensiveness is an unconscious way of protecting ourselves against what we perceive as an attack. We can become defensive when we don't want to admit the truth about something personal. It can seem too painful, so we react by rejecting feedback and pushing it away.

Psychologist Joseph Burgo, author of the 2012 book, "Why Do I Do That?" says people often react defensively when they feel blamed, attacked, criticized, or judged. Our brains automatically go into "survival mode" when they sense a threat to our safety, even if that threat is just a feedback meeting.

Essentially, we try to protect ourselves against the unpleasant feeling that we may be seen as incompetent or just not good enough. This is why defensive people have a difficult time admitting their mistakes and dealing with criticism. It feels better to avoid the responsibility, or to try to shift the blame onto someone else.


We can all become defensive from time to time. For example, it's natural to feel a little anxious during an appraisal if we know we haven't performed at our best. This article explores how to deal with a team member whose defensiveness is a normal part of who they are, rather than one who is reacting to a specific situation.

The Signs of Defensiveness

Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman has outlined some of the defense mechanisms people use when they are criticized, whether this is personal or business related:

  • Tone and Body Language. Crossing their arms, rolling their eyes, smirking, laughing, or ignoring people are all diversions from feeling the pain of responsibility.
  • Making excuses. This tactic involves trying to avoid responsibility by blaming something or someone else.
  • Cross-complaining. When someone criticizes them, they respond with a criticism of their own, ignoring what has been said and going on the attack themselves.
  • Table-turning. Instead of listening to people's complaints, they blame them for creating the situation they are trying to discuss.
  • Yes, butting. They start by agreeing with their critics, but then end by disagreeing with them. It's an attempt to placate them while trying to convince them that they're not at fault.
  • Repeating. When they repeat a point or argument, they are blocking out the other person's point of view to avoid criticism.
  • Denying responsibility. No matter what anyone says or how guilty they actually are, denying responsibility for their actions is a hallmark of all defensive behavior, because it helps them avoid feeling shame.

Consequences of Defensiveness

When people are in "survival mode," they are so focused on protecting themselves that they don't listen, and cannot think rationally. This makes it difficult for them to learn from their experiences or take responsibility for their actions.

Defensive behavior in one person tends to trigger defensiveness in others. As the person on the receiving end of defensiveness, you can also quickly become angry and frustrated, and feel misunderstood. Tempers can flare as conflict escalates and viewpoints are misconstrued.

If this behavior is ignored, the defensive person will continue to be in a state of fear, becoming increasingly watchful for perceived "threats." He or she may then retaliate, and things can quickly become unpleasant for everyone

Managing Defensive People Effectively

In this section, we look at three steps you can take to manage defensive people. The first two steps, Giving Feedback and Communicating Effectively, can help you avoid triggering a defensive reaction. The third step, Dealing With a Defensive Reaction, suggests actions you can take if your team member does become defensive.

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1. Giving Feedback

If you go into a feedback meeting intending to be critical rather than wanting to find a solution, a team member can become defensive and will likely only hear the "attack" in the message, rather than its content.

Jamie Resker, founder of Boston-based business consultancy Employee Performance Solutions, developed The Performance Continuum Feedback® method to help managers focus their feedback on the desired performance rather than the existing negative one. Her strategies include:

  • Identifying the issue. Before you deliver your feedback, it's important to pinpoint the behavior that is creating a problem.
  • Describing the issue in positive terms. For example, if your team member complains about problems without offering solutions, you can focus the discussion on developing his problem-solving skills. Our article, Solution-Focused Coaching, has more detail on how to do this.
  • Being specific. Habitual behavior can be hard to change, so it's important to be specific about what you want to happen. For example, if you want a defensive team member to adopt a calmer approach, you must explain that means he must lower his voice, try to relax, and listen actively to others.
  • Explaining the benefits. Simply telling people they need to change their behavior can trigger their defensive mechanisms. If you point out the advantages of a change, they will be more likely to listen. For example, you could tell your team member that being calmer will earn him more respect and appreciation, and could help him build stronger relationships.

From "3 Keys to Reducing Defensive Reactions to Feedback" by Jamie Resker. Reproduced with permission.


To find out how effective your feedback is, take this self-test.

2. Communicating Effectively

There are a number of strategies you can use when communicating with a defensive team member.

If you have to deliver difficult feedback or approach a sensitive subject, you'll need to consider the likely reaction. But it's important to be honest about any problems, without feeling you have to "walk on eggshells." Our article on How to be Tactful explores ways you can communicate a difficult message to a team member, while respecting her feelings.

Use Empathic Listening where there is disagreement between the two of you. Using phrases like "I see" and "I understand," and simply nodding as she speaks, implies acceptance without suggesting you agree with her.

You may feel under pressure yourself during tense or difficult communications. Our article on Delivering Bad News suggests five steps to tackling such situations with honesty, empathy and grace: prepare yourself emotionally, identify solutions, pay attention to setting and timing, be genuine, and, where appropriate, focus on the positive.

3. Dealing With a Defensive Reaction

If, even after your best efforts to avoid it, your team member does get defensive, you'll need to defuse the situation. There are a number of methods you can use:

  • Be Aware of Your Body Language: keep your body language open and receptive. Your team member may display the classic behaviors we described above, but you should stay calm and in control.
  • Stay Focused: don't let him "go off on a tangent." He may try to pin blame and responsibility on someone else, so you need to keep the conversation focused on the issue.
  • Agree to Disagree: listen to his points, but don't get drawn into an argument or cross-complaining.
  • Stop the Meeting: if the meeting is unproductive and it seems nothing constructive will be achieved, bring it to a stop. You can either suggest a break, or postpone the meeting to another time.


If you've tried these techniques regularly but defensiveness seems to be an ongoing problem, the root cause may be more complex. If there is no change in the person's behavior, or you are having difficulty coping, ask your HR department for help.

Key Points

Defensiveness is an unconscious attempt to alleviate feelings of shame and insecurity brought on by a perceived "attack." To protect themselves from these unpleasant emotions, people can, often unconsciously, employ tactics such as denying responsibility.

If you leave defensive behavior in your team unchecked, it can increase tension by making others feel angry, frustrated and defensive themselves. To deal with it, be tactful but don't sidestep the problems. Let your team member know you understand and support her. When you check that your feedback is fair, focus on the desired outcome, and explain its benefits, individuals will be less likely to get defensive.

Don't get drawn into "tit-for-tat" conflict or arguments. Stay focused on the issues, but bring a meeting to a close if you can see that nothing will likely be achieved at that time.

Apply This to Your Life

You can use many of the techniques in this article to help you deal with defensive people outside the workplace. But have you considered whether you might be a defensive person?

Be open to the possibility that you may be defensive by developing self-awareness and taking responsibility for your own actions and behavior.