You’re acting defensive… No, I’m not! Managing defensiveness

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Bringing up difficult topics often makes others defensive, especially when we’re asking them to acknowledge negative behavior or change in some way. Worse, their responses often trigger us to feel defensive. This can start a downward spiral that leaves us arguing or walking away instead of resolving anything. Here are a few simple tips to increase your chances of successfully navigating the natural response of defensiveness:

  • If someone “springs” something on you, take a deep breath and say, “Thank you for sharing your concern. I need some time to consider this. Can we discuss this later today?" (or a time that is convenient for you)
    • It can be really hard to do this when your first instinct is to protect yourself against an accusation, but doing so will only make things worse.
  • Give yourself the gift of time to consider what was said and ask yourself if there is any (even an iota) of truth in what was shared.
    • If so, dig deep to consider what you can offer to help? Perhaps it’s information. Maybe it’s an acknowledgment of your part. Or it could be doing something differently. Whatever it is, your willingness to take ownership and offer solutions will immediately change the tone of the conversation going forward.
  • Whether the difficult conversation is in response to a concern about you or because you want to bring a concern to someone else, write out what you will to say and practice.
    • Sometimes it takes so much courage to bring up the topic or emotions run so high we blurt out and say things we cannot take back. Giving thought to the words we use is key.
    • Be sure to use “I” statements ("I feel ..." sets an entirely different tone than "You always...").
  • Imagine how the other person will respond and prepare for it.
    • From their perspective, what is the best way to receive information?
    • Is it better to just get it on the table or have a little socializing first? Are they fresher at the start of the day or the end? Do they need time to process or do they think on their feet? Structure the conversation for the best results.
  • When you start the conversation and they respond, assume they will be defensive no matter how well you’ve prepared.
    • Take a deep breath, listen and reflect back what you heard them say.
    • Don’t add anything in or defend yourself, that will only make them more defensive.
  • When they calm down, try again.
    • Simply share the statement you prepared again--remember, you started this conversation because it was important to you. Keep your needs top of mind and be sure to include them.
  • You may have to reflect again and again until cooler heads prevail.
    • Most people will begin to concede by the third time you raise your concern.
    • When they do, begin working together immediately to brainstorm solutions.

The more prepared you are, the more in control you’ll feel, and the less likely you will become defensive.

And remember to breathe! Our bodies literally change when under stress and rapid breathing or holding breath are common responses. Simply pausing and taking in a deep breath can reset your stress response and get you back on track.

To learn more or get one-on-one support for a challenging conflict, contact Bobbie today by email at or phone (585) 748-8682.