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How to Prevent Defensiveness in Your Relationships

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Jan 29, 2021

The path to improving communication and connection with others.

What is Defensiveness or Being Defensive?

Being defensive is a maladaptive communication tactic usually employed by someone who feels criticized or attacked. When a person is defensive, they are unable or unwilling to hear feedback. Instead of hearing the information that someone is trying to communicate with them they immediately deflect and put blame back on the other person, without acknowledging what they have said.

For example, a husband shares with his wife that he is sad that she did not accompany him to his company Christmas party when his co-worker’s partners did attend the event. Instead of receiving the feedback that her husband is sad in relation to something she has or has not done or inquiring more into why this is a concern, she immediately deflects and fires back,

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“Well you never help around the house and leave all of the work to me.” 

While her concern may be just as valid as his, this defensive response immediately shuts down communication. The husband’s concern is left unacknowledged or resolved which makes it unlikely he will be willing to respond to his wife’s concerns about household chores. Neither of their needs have been met. They are both left feeling upset, resentful, and a plethora of other possible negative emotions.

Why Am I Defensive?

How can you avoid being defensive and instead be more open? 

  1. Recognize your fear. It is important to recognize that if you are being defensive you are in a state of fear. Shutting down communication by deflecting or blaming indicates that there is a fear that is preventing you from hearing feedback from other people. Notice when you are feeling afraid or going into a fight or flight response. It is impossible to have a logical conversation when you are experiencing intense fear.
  2. Request to resume the conversation later. When you notice you are becoming defensive, instead of continuing the conversation, request to resume the conversation when you have had time to calm down and gather your thoughts.
  3. Focus on connecting. While it might be difficult to receive negative or critical feedback it is important to recognize that to have connection with another, we need to know them and part of that is understanding their thoughts and feelings. Shutting down communication whenever you do not feel comfortable with what someone is saying will deny you the opportunity to really connect with them or know them in a meaningful way.

Why Do People Become Defensive?

There are many reasons why someone may become defensive. The underlying cause is usually rooted in shame or a fear of being wrong. They may also feel that the feedback they are being given is inaccurate or unjust and have the desire to prove the speaker wrong in their emotions or beliefs. They become defensive to prove the other person wrong or to let them know that they are the one being hurt or harmed. They do this because they fear being perceived in a negative way. However, becoming defensive will only create the feared result of being misunderstood or unfairly judged.

What To Do When You Instead of Getting Defensive

A more effective strategy is learning how to validate what someone has said without defensiveness, even when you do not agree with it or feel that their perception is inaccurate. This approach works for two reasons.

  1. Change your instinct of a negative spin. Stop immediately coming up with a counter defense in your mind. You’ll be better equipped to listen to and process the information being presented to you without putting your own negative spin on the speaker’s intent. Defensiveness is often a response to a narrative we have created in our minds about how another person is going to respond or what they might say without even listening to them. Try being curious about their experience. You might learn something that will even surprise you.
  2. The other person will be more open to hear your perspective. The reason that validating another person’s experience fosters effective communication is because it allows the person who is giving you feedback to more easily create space to hear you. They will feel heard and understood. It is a waste of time to tell someone they should not think or feel the way they do because the truth is, that is their experience. Arguing with that does not change anything for them. When someone is upset and they are told to “calm down” they rarely do because you are not addressing the reason why they do not feel calm in the first place, therefore nothing changes for them.

Questions to Ask When You Are Feeling Defensive.

  1. Ask yourself what you are afraid might happen?
  2. What emotions do you experience when someone is upset or affected by your behavior?
  3. Does this remind you of something in your past?
  4. Are there specific topics or behaviors that trigger a defensive response within you? Why?

Exploring this information on a deeper level either alone or with the help of a couples therapist can help you make sense of what your responses are rooted in and work to change them. If you see that defensiveness is having a negative impact on your relationships, know that it is possible to rewire your brain by becoming more conscious and aware.

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