Disarming Defensiveness

Who among us has not had a conversational experience where a listener has misinterpreted what we’ve said and suddenly became hostile and defensive? The discussion then takes a severe turn because we have to stop and address the underlying issues that caused the other person to feel threatened before the discussion can move on.

In any case, the fundamental basis for a defensive reaction is that the listener feels that his or her identity has been threatened. When this occurs, the listener stops listening and develops a self-protective, resistant stance. You as the speaker must now determine why the person felt attacked and restate your point in a manner by which your listener can feel safe and validated.

Be it an employee, a teenager, a friend or a store clerk, communicating with someone who is on the defensive can be insanely frustrating. People can become emotional and irrational when they feel personally criticized. It’s helpful to note that there are some general and fundamental facts about defensive behavior. These are assuming, of course, that words spoken to the person are verbalized clearly, appropriately and are not accusatory; in other words, our own words do not provoke.

1. People react to their own interpretation of what you are saying about them as opposed to what you are actually verbalizing.

2. Some people sincerely believe they don’t make mistakes and feel threatened if they feel accused.

3. Defensive individuals are good at seeing the fault of others while failing to see their own.

4. When confronted, defensive people will usually disagree.

5. At times, no matter how you phrase an issue, a defensive person will explain why a mistake is not their fault, or why it is justified.

6. If a defensive person believes he or she is not “winning,” they may try to get personal and hurt or blame you.

7. Arguing with a defensive person is futile and the conversation can become very confusing as each side responds to the accusations of the other.

8. Defensive people are highly sensitive to perceived criticism.

9. Listeners become angry and judgmental and may retaliate or withdraw when they feel threatened.

10. Some people need to be right whether they are or not.

When faced with the unpleasant task of having to detangle a defensive attitude, the first requirement is to drop your argument momentarily and listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Allow the defensive person to express him or herself and listen beneath the surface reaction to determine what is really causing the person to resist you and defend their position. Try to grasp why they may feel vulnerable. You will not be able to control a defensive person’s reaction but you can re-phrase your statements, keeping the listener’s identity intact, so that your message it is clearly understood. You may need to frequently reiterate what you’re NOT saying.

Be cautious to not allow yourself to become defensive as well, and try to remain non-judgmental. Avoid loaded words, or a superior attitude. Never engage a defensive person on issues of disagreement; instead, find facts, positions and ideals on which you both agree. Play the role of a mediator in your mind and offer a perspective that a third objective party might introduce.

Keep explanations of your position to a minimum until the defensiveness is diffused since explanations, however valid, come across as excuses in a defensive climate. Continue listening, probing and rewording until you disarm the defensive behavior and your listener is ready to hear what you are attempting to say. Keep the focus on the issue and away from what may appear to be a judgment against personalities.


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