We all find ourselves in conflict situations from time to time, especially when working with others or in our intimate personal relationships. When we interact with each other, there is a certainty that at some point in time, we clash in ideas, preferences or perspectives. Some people however can be very difficult to communicate when they get highly defensive. They completely get preoccupied with proving their innocence and being right rather than finding a solution. If not dealt and checked, defensiveness often leads to unjust accusations, excuses, endless blaming and victim mentality.
Defensiveness is often used for self-protection in the form of innocence or victimhood in an attempt to ward off criticism. A person tries to defend himself from feeling angry, hurt or when they are threatened by someone or something. When one perceives criticism as self-blame or guilt, he or she may try to stop it by becoming defensive. We seek to protect ourselves with defensive strategies, such as justifications and excuses.
When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” — Kirsten SigginsTweet
Why people become defensive ?
At some point in conflict, it is natural to defend yourself when you encounter conflicting ideas, or when there is a clash of personalities and beliefs. Certain of them however can be rigid in their ways, might be self-absorbed, criticising, attention-seeking or manipulative. Such behaviours are mostly driven by defensiveness.
Defensiveness is used as defence mechanism to help us when we are children to navigate difficult situations. However, if one gets stuck in their conditioned past, it makes them dependent on unconditional support and protection as they got as children. Some people also think and act defensively to protect themselves from anything that threatens their perceived self-image. As a result, they resort to denying, rationalising and justifying their behaviour, or failure or poor choices.
Since defensiveness allows us to automatically feel more superior, we feel it is necessary for self-protection, be it to protect our own emotions, ego or beliefs. Some people use it to give themselves a break when they do something wrong, or when they are misrepresenting what occurred. Here are some more reasons why people act defensively.
- Fear of failure or rejection
- Low self-esteem
- Not knowing how to handle criticism
- Conflict avoidance
- Lack of assertiveness
- Unwilling to admit mistakes
- Learned behaviour
- Denying responsibility
- To deflect blame on others
Some of us engage in defensive behaviours when we operate from safety mindset. It causes us to go into survival mode. We often want to think that we are good and would want others to think the same. When this expectation gets threatened, we get defensive to justify the decisions we have made or the things we have done.
How it becomes a vicious cycle
No matter what the reason may be, going on the defensive often results in making personal attacks or making extreme statements that result in unhealthy work or personal relationships. People who defend themselves ignore any attempts to resolve, and look to shift the blame on to the other for what they are being criticised for. They make lot of excuses and appear disinterested in what you are saying.
While operating from emotional defensiveness, you
- justify your action and behaviour.
- ignore other perspectives and evade responsibility to resolve.
- Remain stuck in a destructive, self-perpetuating cycle of victim hood.
- Judge others to protect yourself.
- try hard to prove yourself right.
- block active listening.
- fail to navigate good work/business relationships.
- constantly play the victim or blame others.
- cannot put your inner resources towards growth resolution.
- Begin to lose your own identity and self-esteem.
A defensive other in a conflict will therefore complains, acts victimised, lies, shuts down and makes you grow resentful and emotionally distant. The purpose of person defending is to turn the attention towards the faults of the other. It is a way of blaming the other saying, in effect, “the problem is you, it isn’t me.”
When you blame the other, you not only become critical of self, but also affect your relationships leading to hostile work environments. Defensiveness in workplaces can make it harder to get along with your teams or colleagues thereby keeping you from doing collaborative work. It also causes a vicious cycle of distrust, anger and creates animosity towards the other.
Related: How to deal with victim mentality
Ways to deal with defensiveness
Defensiveness isn’t entirely avoidable, and neither it is inherently a bad thing. It is a part of being human and we all use it to protect ourselves when our sense of identity, or competency is threatened. But however, when employed inappropriately, they prevent individuals in conflict from communicating effectively. Understanding what your defensive triggers are and when it is happening can help you redirect it into more productive conversations and to act in collaborative ways. Here are some ways to address your own defensiveness,
Develop your self-awareness
Conflict usually involves negative emotions and as most of us are not comfortable with them, the discomfort makes us go on the defensive. Developing awareness of your emotional triggers reduces your urge to go on the defensive. Pay attention to your emotions and gain awareness as to what behaviours are your go-to’s.
Make a note on what is making you blame the other or what are you seeking to accomplish in most of your conversations. What situations tend to be your vulnerabilities? How do you physically and emotionally react to conflicts ? Understanding yourself can help you regulate your own emotions and it will be easier to adopt a more rational approach in finding a solution.
Shift your mindset
Your mindset plays an important role in leveraging conflicts for its positive benefits and avoid the negative. We get emotionally triggered when we operate out of safety mindset. Communicating out of safety mindset makes you perceive yourself as being under threat. You tend to communicate from a place of judgment and are more likely to employ defensive strategies.
Recognise when you are operating from this mindset and do not allow yourself triggered by it. One way to shift your mindset is to believe in your strengths to keep your mind curious and creative as opposed to defensive. This ensures you respond to others’ criticism constructively rather than react.
Criticism in conflict situations often stems from a place of negative judgment. The person criticising often resorts to making negative statements while voicing his or her concerns and complaints. If you are at the receiving end of it, understand the reason why you are being threatened in that particular situation. Once you recognise where the perceived threat lies, you can further ask questions about who, what, where, how and why. For instance, what makes you say those things about me? Or Why did you decide to take this action? Turn the other person’s statement into question to challenge your own assumptions.
Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, What else could this mean?’ —Shannon Alder
Most people don’t say what they mean. You might learn later that they mean something very different than what you think. When you are not sure you have understood something correctly, especially if it’s leading to misunderstanding, seek clarification. When dealing with negative feedback, asking questions provides an opportunity to know what they really mean. Rather than assuming, asking ‘what I heard you say is…, ‘ lets the other know that you have truly heard them. It also allows you to put yourself in positive frame of mind, so that you can consider what they are saying rather than unnecessarily defending yourself.
Some do’s and don’ts in dealing with others’ defensiveness.
- Accommodate reason when you are engaging with aspects of the compliant or request. Avoid making extreme statements on personality and character. Respond to their belief, feeling or what they say instead of continually coming up with personal attacks. One of the most effective method to communicate with a person on the defensive is to use ‘I’ statements. Question their emotions as to what prompted them to say something. This helps you frame the effects of a situation around your personal experience and not about them as a person.
- Avoid the instinct to prove yourself right always. Our first reaction in difficult conversations is to try and prove our position more valid than the other person’s. We resort to using words and actions that are focused on judging, criticising or evaluating the other person in the process. Attacking the others with ‘you are a terrible person’, or ‘an impostor’ or ‘maniac’ implies they are wrong and you are right. Instead of accusing them of being bad or wrong, focus on letting them know that their words/actions/behaviours are inappropriate. For instance, letting them know—‘when you said ….,I felt…!’ is going to make them less defensive in a conversation.
- Clarify your motive/intent. When your actions imply a hidden purpose, people think you are trying to manipulate them to get something out of the conversation. Words when misaligned with intent can negatively impact. When you mean to say one thing, but the other misinterprets it to simply something else and goes on the defensive. Rather than making the other judge you wrongly, describe whatever your action, words or beliefs you want to discuss. Instead of planning out what you are going to get out of them, stay focused on the present moment and respond to what’s happening in the moment. For instance, ‘what exactly are you saying.. help me understand..!’This way, you get further insight into what their motive and rationale is.
- Avoid using words or actions that seem to be geared toward controlling the other person. Emphasising that you are superior is more likely to make them more confrontational. When you don’t necessarily agree with what the other is saying, it can exacerbate defensive behaviours. Instead of saying ‘this will never work’ or ‘you are wrong… or you will have to do it my way’, provide an opportunity to understand where the other person is to try and work with them to solve the problem. Treating them as equals even if you think you are more qualified or capable enough can help you consider their point of views. It also shows your willingness to actively listen and are valuing their opinion and input.
- Acknowledging other alternatives and the fact that your views on the matter are not entirely right can also reduce the other’s defensiveness. Saying ‘I agree with you on… and disagree on…‘ or ‘let us work on this together…!’ rather than being accusatory—- ‘this is all your fault..’ or you messed up..’ can elicit more collaborative environment. It can also work if you want to help someone fix a mistake they made and are going on defensive denying it. This ensures communication and you are setting a safe space to work instead of making them feel threatened.
How is your defensiveness impacting your relationships?
What are some of your strategies to deal with others’ defensiveness?
How can you choose not to get threatened by extreme criticism?
Do you anticipate when you are about to get defensive in a difficult conversation?
How often do you seek clarification of something you haven’t understood?
Do you always try to prove yourself right?
Defensiveness cannot be entirely avoidable as most of us are imperfect and are spontaneous in most situations. We also get very sensitive to complaints, criticism or when certain situations threaten our self-image. And not knowing how to deal with it can often lead to unproductive outcomes. The next time you find yourself caught up in a disagreement, make an active effort to avoid indulging in defensiveness by employing some of the above. Knowing how to deal with others’ allows you to steer the conversation towards mending and building healthy relationships.