Why Do People Become Defensive?

Six Factors That Influence Defensiveness

John R. Stoker is the author of  “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of Dialogue WORKS, Inc.  His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. 

Recently I held a number of open office hours online to answer questions that people had about emotional intelligence. By far the most frequently asked question was, “Why do people become so defensive?” Perhaps the easiest way to understand defensiveness is to understand what makes each of us defensive. What might lead me to become defensive may not cause the same reaction in you.

Years ago while I was teaching a leadership development session, I encountered a participant like no one I had never experienced before. As the session started, he took out a small, portable printer that he attached to his laptop. As the session proceeded, he searched our discussion topics on his laptop to find articles that either supported or challenged something I was teaching. Then on breaks, he would provide me a copy of the articles he had found. I didn’t mind that, but he would also interrupt both me and the other participants during the session to interject his opinions. As this man continued to be confrontational and disruptive during our session, my frustration with him grew until I found myself responding to him in a negative way. At the next break, I approached him privately and asked him if he could be more sensitive and respectful to others. Still he continued this disruptive behavior until the second afternoon. A group of participants who had enough of his behavior approached him and threatened to force him to leave if he didn’t stop. That did it. He didn’t say another thing.

What gave rise to my defensiveness in this situation was this man’s outward disrespect for me and the other participants even after I asked him to curtail his behavior. It seemed like he was more interested in drawing attention to himself and his expertise rather than contributing to the learning experience of everyone.

We will all have experiences where we will feel defensive or encounter someone who is. Here are six factors that can help us understand why a person may become defensive.

  1. Threat. The very nature of a person’s position in an organization and the authority they may possess to control your work life and experience is threatening to some people. Sometimes the unspoken threat that accompanies an unaware leader is based on a person’s or team’s history with that individual. Once someone has been belittled, demeaned, threatened, or perceived that they have been, they anticipate that it will happen again, so they tend to be on guard.

What to Do: Recognize when people feel threatened they will display lack of eye contact, turn away, not speak up, push away, or avoid others and disengage. Be patient with them. Express interest in their ideas and continue to invite them to share their views.

  1. Closed-mindedness. This characteristic often arises because a person has been made to feel less than or may have been criticized for what they think. Such experience tends to solidify people’s thinking. Because our experience gives rise to what we think, anything outside the realm of our experience is usually categorically rejected. In this situation, resistance to the experience and ideas of others is difficult to overcome. On some level, the rejection of differing ideas is a form of self-protection to avoid confronting the possibility of being wrong.

What to Do: When someone is resistant, begin by trying to understand their position and experience by asking questions and listening to their responses. During this process, you must be fully present and patient with the person. The more you ask and listen, the greater the respect and rapport will be increased. When that rapport is established, gently tell the person that you have had a different experience and ask for permission to share that experience. When you finish, ask them what they think about what you have shared. If they express no desire to understand your perspective, be patient, wait for another opportunity, and keep trying.

We will all have experiences where we will feel defensive or encounter someone who is. Here are six factors that can help us understand why a person may become defensive.

  1. Real and Imagined Dangers. This factor for defensiveness is partially tied to the notion of threat. When we don’t have all the information about a situation, we often will interpret it in the worst possible way. Then to complicate the situation, we often project negative outcomes into the future with no evidence that the situation will ever occur. If we perceive a negative outcome we automatically act to defend ourselves. For example, if you asked a person to do an analysis of some financial numbers for you and they responded by saying, “You know I am not good at numbers. Couldn’t you get someone else to do that?” You would know that mentally they are projecting that they might do a poor job.

What to Do: Look for the positives hidden behind a person’s negativity. A person’s negative statements or defensiveness is the expression of their values—what is important to them. If you can get someone to share the reason behind their defensiveness, you will learn about the importance a person places on certain issues. This will help you understand how to best address their real or perceived dangers.

  1. Conflict-adverse. Many people do not like conflict. They don’t like the emotion, the drama, and the negativity people tend to experience in these situations. At the first signs of disagreement and tension, they will either shut down entirely, completely avoid the situation, or match fire with fire. In any case, it becomes difficult to resolve a conflict because people tend to lack the skills to dissipate strong emotion and talk through what is important to both parties.

What to Do: Stay engaged; don’t run from the negative “hot” emotion. Stay calm. A person’s negative emotion says more about them than it does about you.. Ask for more information, such as, “What do you want and why?” It is the “why” that is most important because their why is really an expression of their values. Once you understand a person’s “why,” you are more likely to find a solution —conflict resolved.

  1. Image. People don’t like to viewed negatively. If there is a chance they will be seen as incompetent, negative, uncooperative, or unsupportive, they will respond defensively when confronted. This is a common reaction. Every one of us wants to put our best self forward. Anytime someone comes along with feedback to the contrary, it is natural to attempt to discredit or counter what that person is saying.

What to Do: If you must provide feedback to someone, do it privately. Provide data or examples of an issue that you need to resolve. Ask questions to explore the person’s perspective. Summarize your understanding to establish mutual clarity between you and the other person. Create a plan to address what results you would like to improve or change.    

  1. Embarrassment. When someone is embarrassed by what another person says or does, they may respond defensively. Embarrassment often occurs because of incorrect beliefs someone may have about themselves such as worthlessness, fear of abandonment, failure, or scarcity of positives in their lives. For example, a person who possesses a mindset of scarcity may tell themselves that they are excluded from an abundance of love, money, friends, opportunities, etc.

What to Do: If you are the person feeling embarrassed, then you will want to explore the source of your feelings. Understanding the triggers for your feelings will allow you to challenge the accuracy of your feelings. To do so, you will want to distinguish between reality and your assumptions. When your assumptions have no basis in reality, then you must admit that your assumptions are just that—your assumptions. Assumptions with evidence will force you to challenge the accuracy of your feelings.

If you notice that someone is embarrassed and is starting to become defensive, you might want to explore the situation and see if you can identify what they are thinking about themselves. If you can do that, then you can counter any perceived assumptions with the facts. It is important to be supportive, honest, and sincere with anyone who may become embarrassed, whether you feel that embarrassment is justified or not.

We will all become defensive at some time. Understanding the basis for your defensiveness will allow you to gain control of your feelings and make a choice about how you want to respond. Attempting to understand the defensiveness of others will keep you from taking their behavior personally and place you in a position to react rationally so that the emotions of the moment will not negatively influence your interactions.

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