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5 Reasons Why Some People Get So Defensive

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Everyone has a natural inclination to want to protect themselves. This inclination can show itself as defensiveness in social situations where a person feels threatened.

That threat may stem from a real attack, but it’s just as likely if the thing a person says or does is perceived as an attack, even when it wasn’t intended that way.

How a person responds to perceived attacks is strongly affected by how their parents acted toward them as children.

Many highly-sensitive or conflict-avoidant people were berated or shamed as children. Their parents may not have appreciated contrary opinions or felt that they should be seen and not heard.

People who are nurtured or have healthy conflict resolution with their parents as children will typically be more resilient to social conflict and criticism as adults. They will perceive fewer threats in general and will be better equipped to take criticism constructively (when it is delivered as such) rather than getting worked up about it.

In social situations, people are typically defensive when they feel threatened, embarrassed, or made to feel small.

Let’s look at some of the more common reasons for these feelings and how you might go about resolving them.

1. They may feel ambushed.

No one likes to have unexpected criticism dropped on them out of nowhere. Springing feedback on someone unexpectedly or angrily is a surefire way to ensure that they don’t hear what you are trying to tell them.

Instead of being open or receptive, they will close off and prepare to defend themselves as an instinctual response.

How to approach this:

Have a conversation rather than criticizing. Talk to the person about the subject, get them talking about it to hear their thoughts, and then ask if you can provide some feedback. This puts the criticism on a more level playing field where the two of you participate in a conversation rather than a lecture.

Always approach these conversations as calmly as you can. Anger won’t get the job done. If anything, it will breed short-term compliance and long-term resentment. No one likes to be yelled at.

2. You’re all talk and no action.

No one likes hypocrites, even though we are all hypocrites from time to time. In the context of defensiveness, the other person is unlikely to listen if you are not fulfilling your end of the social bargain.

Consider a manager at a store. They go on and on about the importance of friendliness, fast service, and working hard for the company. Yet, when you need that manager to help with a difficult customer, they are nowhere to be found.

Maybe they’re hiding away in their office and ignoring calls. Maybe they’re running personal errands on company time. Maybe they just tell you to deal with things yourself.

And that manager is going to be the one to tell you to work hard? Where do they get off!?

Or take a personal relationship where you regularly ask your partner to do things differently because their approach annoys you. If you are not doing the same for them – taking on their feedback and adapting your behavior – they are likely to get defensive when you make requests of them.

How to approach this:

Make sure that you are practicing what you preach. If you don’t, there will undoubtedly be people who look at your example and refuse to meaningfully engage because they don’t trust your actions.

If you are in a position of authority, lead by example. Only then will your colleagues be willing to listen to what you have to say and take on board your feedback.

3. You treat every situation as black and white, right and wrong.

The world would be a much easier place to navigate if everything were black and white. But it’s not. Most things are a varying shade of gray. There are always exceptions, caveats, and quirks that really should be analyzed and accounted for in the grand scheme of things.

But that isn’t how we tend to function. If I’m right, then you must be wrong! And if I’m telling you that you’re wrong, then you’re going to put up your shield and be ready to defend yourself from that attack.

How to approach this:

Come at a problem from the perception of resolving the issue. Instead of right and wrong or pointing fingers of blame, ask the person how the two of you can work toward a solution together. Then follow through on that plan.

By approaching someone with the understanding that they probably didn’t mean to do the thing wrong, you’ll be able to resolve the issue and get back to business. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt can go a long way toward improving communication.

4. The other person may find you untrustworthy or intimidating.

Nothing puts a person on the defensive more than feeling like they are being lied to or manipulated. Controlling the flow of information is a surefire sign that something is amiss. Socially adept people will pick up on a lack of meaningful information and details.

Consider your actions for a moment. Do you act with honesty and integrity with other people? Hopefully, you do. But if you don’t, well, other people may have already picked up on that.

They may be defensive around you because they have good reason to be. Spend enough time with a person and you will eventually see where there are shortcomings in their behavior or inconsistencies in their words.

What about anger? Do you have a controlled temper? Do you scream at people? Throw things? Break things? If people are intimidated by you, they aren’t going to listen to you.

How to approach this:

The best solution for this kind of breach of trust is to simply do better. Apologies don’t count for much. The other person just usually assumes you’re not honest about that either.

The only way to repair that is to improve your communication methods, stick to being more open and honest, and work to include them more.

They will eventually respond to these efforts, though it may take some time.

5. They don’t want to be viewed negatively.

People will generally seek to avoid negative situations and perceptions. They don’t want to be embarrassed, made to look incompetent, without compassion, or unsupportive.

Approaching someone with that kind of intent will put them on the defensive, which means they aren’t listening, which means you’re not going to get anywhere meaningful with the conversation.

How to approach this:

There’s a saying that goes along with managing people: “Praise in public, criticize in private.”

This is the reason for that saying. By praising and looking for the good things in public, you make that person feel good about themselves and acknowledge them as a quality contributor.

That also makes the difficult conversations that you will need to have in private all that much easier. They know you aren’t going to rake them over the coals or embarrass them in front of other people.

In personal relationships, this means recognizing when your partner does something well, succeeds at something, or agrees to do something your way.

A simple “well done” or “thank you” goes a long way in making them feel valued which helps lower their defenses when you do have to talk about something else that they might feel a little less positive about.

One final tip: focus on the facts and situation at hand.

Defensiveness is not bad behavior. It’s a natural, expected behavior. Some people will be more defensive than others due to their personality and past experiences. Others will be more receptive and easier to talk to about the problems that arise.

In any scenario, a solid approach is to focus more on the facts, situation, and results rather than what the other person might have done wrong.

It is perfectly fair and reasonable to sometimes correct other people because a bad outcome or expectations are not met. But the way you go about it will make all the difference.

Constructive criticism is valuable when it’s actually constructive. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget the constructive part of the criticism.

And that goes for personal and professional relationships.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.