August 20, 2021

How to Communicate with a Defensive Person.

A defensive stance is dangerous for relationships because it causes communication deterioration. 

Instead of conversations about what we need to change to support the relationship, we end up having lots of fights that feel like they don’t get anywhere. After a while, we might give up and start talking ourselves out of, well, talking. Instead of expressing needs, we may keep quiet to maintain the unhealthy peace. Eventually, this will lead to resentment and disconnection, both of which are relationship poison. 

Before we give up on the defensive person, though, let’s take a look at some strategies that help disarm those defenses, so that difficult conversations feel more like two people sitting side-by-side, tackling challenges together.

Before You Approach:

Take some time to ask the following questions as you prepare for conversations that normally get pushback.

Will the other person feel attacked?

This is particularly important to consider when the other person has fragile self-worth, making them extra sensitive to judgment or criticism.

How important is this? 

Does their behavior directly affect me or am I trying to control something that’s not really my business? 

Am I taking ownership of my own behavior?

Before asking someone else to change the way they do something, we need to examine how we might sometimes act in a similar way or how we may be contributing to the problem somehow. 

What is the purpose of this request? 

Is it to affect healthy changes or is it to make the other person feel bad, guilty, or wrong? If it’s the latter, we need to do some self-examination about why we feel we need that.

During the Interaction:

Lead with what they do well. 

All humans want to be right, and when someone gives us that acknowledgment, it creates a connection that makes us willing to listen further. What small thing is the other person getting right in this situation?

Share your feedback as a request.

At the end of the day, we just want different behavior when something isn’t working, so why not leave the complaint part out altogether and focus instead on the change we want to see.

Take responsibility for negative contributions.

When we own our part of what’s not working, it feels more like a problem the two of us are solving together rather than a you-go-fix-this situation.

Watch the superior tone.

We may very well be the person who is better at communication, but we need to be careful not to let that come across as condescension. Even if the motivation is pure and we just want to share a strategy, that can sound like correcting and make the other person feel like we’re speaking down to them.

Language makes a difference. 

When we use words like always or never, or assign negative character attributes to the other person, a defensive reaction is almost a guarantee.  

Uh oh, I did it again.

Let’s say we blew it on the first two and we’ve triggered our partner’s defensiveness. In that case, it’s repair time. Call it out. Acknowledge they feel attacked. 

“I feel like that may have come across as an attack.”

Admitting mistakes is a great way to not only model non-defensive behavior but also to build trust. People feel safe when they can reliably trust their partner to own up to missteps. 

Defensiveness is just a fear response triggered by a perceived attack (false or otherwise). When we’re careful about how we bring feedback to the table, we can steer clear of fear and get to the good work of strengthening our relationships through healthy communication.


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Stacy Rocklein  |  Contribution: 2,270

author: Stacy Rocklein

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