Defensiveness is a natural reaction when we feel attacked. It makes sense that we want to defend ourselves from physical harm or verbal criticism and blame. In conversations, though, defensiveness can quickly derail any hopes of understanding and moving forward. It’s even considered by relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman to be one of the four communication issues that can damage or end relationships.
A defensive reaction can look argumentative, but it can also take other forms, such as denial, avoidance, lying, or gaslighting. And it’s usually a response to a perceived threat, according to Amanda Levison, a licensed professional counselor in Harrisburg, Pa. Getting defensive protects us and our feelings, and it’s one way we deflect responsibility and accountability for our actions when confronted.
So how can you respond to defensiveness?
Avoid getting defensive in return
Meeting defensiveness with defensiveness is likely to escalate tension rather than diffuse it. Saying “stop being so defensive” or “don’t take it personally” probably won’t help either.
“Defensiveness is usually born out of fear of rejection or judgment,” says Anna Poss, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Chicago. “Arguing with a defensive person, becoming defensive in turn, or being judgmental will confirm their fears.”
Take some space
When we’re defensive, we’re acting on emotion, not logic, Poss says. Trying to reason with someone in the face of strong emotions is unlikely to be productive.
If emotions are high, you may want to take a break until you feel in control (or until the person you’re talking to does). Poss suggests taking a deep breath or counting to 10. You may need to actually walk away, collect your thoughts, and come back to the conversation later. If this is the case, communicate to the other person that you need space.
Add structure to your conversation
One way to manage defensiveness and the dysregulation that comes with it is to follow some communication ground rules: listen, reflect, validate, repeat. For example, you might agree that each person gets the chance to speak uninterrupted while the other person listens. The listener can reflect what they heard and validate the speaker’s feelings. Then switch.
Other ways to improve your communication include using “I” statements that explain what you are experiencing (rather than accusing the other person) and describing only the facts of the situation.
Poss recommends getting curious about the other person’s perspective, which may help you take things less personally and avoid the perception that you’re judging them. Ask questions with genuine interest, and try to understand why they feel defensive. If it’s a response to something you said or did or your tone, acknowledge that and try a different approach next time.
Responding to defensiveness takes some self-awareness and the willingness to admit that you may have been wrong. It also requires empathy for the other person’s feelings. Of course, there may also be situations and relationships where consistent defensiveness creates an unhealthy dynamic, and it’s always good to get professional support if you need it.