Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who immediately becomes defensive? It’s incredibly frustrating and generally leads down an unproductive and argumentative path.
Defensive behavior is a common response to feeling uncomfortable. But continual and unwarranted defensiveness can be a sign of problems. Not to mention that it makes it very difficult to have a meaningful conversation.
What Defensive Behavior Looks Like
Defensive behavior seems easy to identify, right? Yes, and no. There are actually several ways that defensive behavior can manifest.
- "Yes, but...": Another common defense response is justification. Trying to over-explain and justify actions is a defensive move. These become excuses for behavior.
- "It’s your fault.": Many times someone on the defensive will try to turn things around and make it your fault. One of my favorites came from an 8-year-old who had knocked a glass off a table and broke it. Rather than saying sorry and claiming her accidental move, she turned to her mother and said, “Well it wouldn’t have broken if you hadn’t put it there. It’s really your fault.” While this is a teachable moment for a child, many adults operate in this same fashion.
- "You don’t understand.": Claiming to be misunderstood and that you couldn’t possibly relate to their actions or motivations is another favorite.
- "You did it too.": Whatever the behavior in question is, they may claim you’ve done it too and therefore they can’t be judged, nor will they accept any responsibility or admit wrongdoing. Or they may point out other things you’ve done and make them sound worse than their own actions. You may hear things like, “It’s not like you can talk,” or “You’re no better.”
- “I’m not listening to you.”: While the silent treatment is a form of passive-aggressive anger, silence and blatantly ignoring someone can also be a defensive move. Rather than engaging in productive conversation they simply pretend they can’t hear you or are too focused on something else to pay attention to you, looking up at some point and asking, “What’s your problem?”
- Non-verbal clues: It’s very common for defensive behavior to have a non-verbal component. This response can stand alone or be in conjunction with verbal behaviors. Crossed arms, a turned or partially turned back, or a lack of eye contact, especially with an intent focus toward something else, are all considered defensive posturing. Without saying a word these actions tell you the person you’re speaking with does not like or opposes whatever you’re saying.
The overall goal for all these defense mechanisms is to protect the individual from a perceived threat (criticism of their behavior or being told they are wrong), even if the threat doesn’t actually exist.
Why People Become Defensive
We have all been defensive at some point. It’s how we keep ourselves safe. But defense mechanisms that kick in at inappropriate times can disrupt relationships and often reveal larger issues.
A common time for defensive behavior is when we’re embarrassed. Feeling embarrassed can leave you vulnerable to ridicule and shame. Often people become defensive when embarrassed and explain, justify, ignore, or otherwise deflect the attention away from themselves.
While some defensive behavior is common and understandable, like when you’re feeling embarrassed, constant defensiveness is a bigger problem. It may help, however, to try and understand the origin of the response, especially if it seems odd for the situation.
People who frequently respond to others with defensive behavior may do so because of past experiences. Growing up in an abusive environment, or one where they were consistently belittled and blamed, can create an always beware mindset. They may assume that everyone else’s baseline is to find a way to blame, criticize, or take out their dissatisfaction with them.
Another possibility is that someone is dealing with persistent feelings of inferiority and a need to show others that they’re worthy and have value. This need can lead a person to respond in a defensive manner to most interactions, even when the interaction is intended to be positive.
Perhaps the most common reason for defensiveness is the inability to listen and communicate effectively. Responding without listening and fully understanding leads to inappropriate and disproportionate defensive behavior. When we don’t have all the information about a situation we can interpret it in the worst possible way. The tendency is then to project the imagined negative outcome into the future, even with no evidence that the situation will ever occur. The perceived outcome that we so easily assume will occur will lead us to automatically defend ourselves without any real reason to do so.
How To Talk To Someone Who’s Always Defensive
So, how do you communicate with someone whose go-to response is a defensive one? It can be tough, and it can also feel as though you’re the one being attacked and trigger your own defensive response. This isn’t a healthy interaction between anyone and can be especially damaging to romantic relationships.
The first thing you need to do is check yourself. Do you tend to use language that naturally incites a defensive response? Starting sentences with accusatory language like, “You always” or “You never” really sets someone up to defend themselves. Rarely do people always or never do anything.
Next, focus on taking a positive approach to whatever you want to discuss. This may mean using appreciative language at the beginning of a conversation or leading with something encouraging that generates engagement.
If you have a criticism to deliver, or anything else that could be taken poorly, make a point not to lose your temper and become angry. This can be a tough one, especially if the person you are talking to goes into defense mode and becomes combative, disrespectful, or angry on their own. But you will get nowhere once you are both angry and defensive.
Lastly, try asking questions. Not in a condescending, need-to-prove-your-point manner, but genuine, meaningful, and open-ended questions that encourage the person you’re speaking with to open up and recognize their own behavior. You might even ask directly if something about what you’ve said is making them feel uneasy or threatened.
Better understanding the basis of someone’s defensiveness will help you not to take it personally and be able to respond in a way that encourages better communication. And if you’re the one who’s defensive more often than is appropriate, understanding your own behavior can help you make needed changes as well.