Typically, a defensive response stems from feeling accused of something negative within a conflict, says conversation expert Debra Roberts, LCSW, founder of the Relationship Protocol: “Whether you intended to blame them or not, a defensive person may catastrophize what you’ve said and then act from a place of feeling hurt.” In practice, this can look like shutting down and initiating the ever-so-frustrating silent treatment or lashing out in an effort to rebound the problem, focus, or blame back onto you, which in turn, tasks you with figuring out its resolution.
“If you feel like your partner simply isn’t listening to you, showing curiosity in what you have to say, or attempting to understand your point of view, they could be acting defensively, too.” —Tracy Ross, LCSW
Sometimes, though, the defensive response may be slightly less obvious. “If you feel like your partner simply isn’t listening to you, showing curiosity in what you have to say, or attempting to understand your point of view, they could be acting defensively, too,” says couples and family therapist Tracy Ross, LCSW. To pinpoint defensive behavior in the works, she also suggests looking for body-language cues like a closed-off stance, crossed-arms, or eye-rolling.
But even if a friend or loved one does seem particularly prone to entering defensive territory, that doesn't mean you have to walk on eggshells while figuring out how to talk to them. In fact, there’s likely some degree of their response that you can relate to. “We all get defensive sometimes,” says Roberts. “It’s just the level of defensiveness and awareness of it that will vary.” With that in mind, consider the following tips from Roberts and Ross for approaching the situation with empathy.
3 ways to start a conversation with a defensive person:
1. Calmly state your intentions up-front.
For particularly sensitive topics that you’re almost sure will generate a defensive response, it can be helpful to just anticipate it. “You might say, for example, ‘I want to talk to you about what happened yesterday. And I want you to know that I'm not attacking you, and I don't want you to feel defensive. I just want to tell you how I felt or what I think occurred,’” says Roberts. This can help you to manage expectations from the jump.
2. Avoid leading with an accusation.
The way a conversation begins will set the tone for how it proceeds, says Ross: “Going in with guns blazing, or dumping everything you’re feeling onto your partner likely won’t go well, even if they aren’t necessarily prone to defensiveness.” So instead of initiating with what the other person may have done wrong, launch into the conversation with your own experience, how you’re feeling now or when the situation of note occurred, and how you’d have liked it to go differently.
3. Steer clear of “always,” “never,” and “you” statements.
In the same way that a “you” statement is often a way to cast blame—"you did this" or "you did that"—doubling down with superlatives like “always” or “never” can easily blow the conversation out of proportion and cause your partner to feel attacked. When this happens, “the natural response in the other person is to find the exception, which can start them down a defensive rabbit hole,” says Ross. Instead, Roberts suggests using ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I am upset about what happened,’ or ‘I felt this way when you did X.’
4 tips for how to talk to a defensive person in the heat of an argument:
1. Own your part.
Because everyone’s emotions play out differently based on our unique set of past experiences, it’s very possible that someone might interpret a comment of yours as accusatory, even if that wasn’t the intention. In that case, it’s best to apologize swiftly for whatever they perceived as hurtful. “You can say, ‘I'm sorry that I made you feel badly. I wasn’t looking to do that,’” says Roberts. This simple step can carry huge weight when it comes to mitigating tension and getting the conversation back on track.
2. Ask questions.
“If you are really curious and open to hearing what your partner has to say, they're much more likely to stay calm,” says Ross. Opening up the floor for them to speak is not only a helpful conversation tactic in general, but it can also provide the chance for them to explain what’s prompting their strong response, as well.
You might also question whether there was something you said or did, in particular, that triggered them, says Roberts. “This is a really caring gesture, so long as the question is genuine,” she says. “It shows a desire to have a better relationship with the other person and avoid defensiveness down the line.”
3. Don't place additional blame.
Perhaps the worst response, however natural it may be, is to accuse the person of...being defensive (or even worse, of “always” being defensive). As noted above, feeling attacked is one of the major triggers of defensiveness, so blaming someone for acting in such a way will likely only add (literal) insult to injury.
4. Take a break.
Physically removing yourself from the same space can help defuse conflict and keep it from escalating, says Ross. Sometimes, it takes a few minutes for someone to realize that they, perhaps, had an overly intense reaction; to process it as defensiveness; and to be prepared to reenter the original conversation. So long as you agree to come back to the conversation in, say, 20 minutes, adds Ross—instead of ending it on a sour note—that time alone can be just what a person needs in order to understand your intentions were never to hurt them.
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