Exploring Defensiveness

What is Defensiveness?

The third horsemen in the Four Horsemen is a common one: defensiveness, which is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.

It is an unconscious and automatic response to perceived danger, whether or not it makes sense to others.

Righteous indignation, counterattack and innocent victim are all types of defensiveness. Defensive communication expert Jack Gibbs outlines six behavioral categories that create defensive responses in people:

  • Dogmatism – Black and white, I’m right and you’re wrong, either/or, and other kinds of all or nothing thinking and communication cause people to react defensively.
  • Lack of accountability – Shifting blame, making excuses, and rationalizing behavior leads people to raise their defense levels.
  • Controlling/Manipulative – Using all sorts of behaviors to control or manipulate people will lead to defensive behavior. No one likes to feel like they are being used by someone else.
  • Guarded/Withholding Information – When people feel like they are being left in the dark or purposely excluded from having information they should know, they are threatened and will react defensively.
  • Superiority – Want someone to be defensive? Then act like you’re better than him/her, lord your power, knowledge, or position over them and see how they respond.
  • Critical – A constant focus on catching people doing something wrong, rather than right, creates a climate of defensiveness.

People that are defensive, may appear to not be listening to you. They make a lot of excuses. They blame you for the problem. They say that you did the same thing that you’re unhappy about them doing. They talk a lot about why they caused the problem, trying to justify their behavior. They focus on things you’ve done wrong at other times rather than the current issue. They try to tell you how you feel.

These are things that we can’t see about ourselves, but which others do see. When someone tries to give us feedback in a blind spot, we usually reject it as simply wrong – not because we’re being irrationally defensive, but because, to us, it actually seems wrong. It leaves us feeling confused, because we wonder what would cause others to give us feedback that is so off target? Are they jealous, petty, naïve, or political? As we sort through what would motivate the other person to give us such feedback, we move further and further from considering how the feedback might be useful to us.

Where does it come from?

To be defensive is to react with an overprotective mentality so a situation that perhaps doesn’t warrant it. Defensiveness is an impulsive and reactive mode of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.

People react defensively because they anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment, not usually because they’re just wanting to be difficult. Defensive behavior can be a complex and murky issue.

“Defensive reactivity” refers to the sensitivity or responsiveness of the brain’s defense system, especially the amygdala (our emergency response center). Situations that we have learned are threatening (or that we perceive as threatening) trigger that danger center before we’re even aware of it—it’s instinctual, not intentional—and our reaction is instant. A perceived threat increases cortisol levels, notifying the body of danger; the heart and metabolic rates go up, and the individual becomes more alert.

There are two key causes that both stem from our own blind spots.

The first is that we can’t see ourselves. We spend a lot of time with ourselves, so in one sense, we know more about ourselves than anyone else could ever know; but there are things about ourselves that we literally can’t see, such as our facial expressions and our body language. Even our tone of voice is hard to judge. So the very data that is most obvious and present to others is what is missing for us. We communicate a tremendous amount through expressions and tone, especially regarding our emotional state. The merest squint can communicate, “I doubt that,” even as we’re saying, “that sounds right.”

A second kind of blind spot is our impact on others, which again, we cannot see, because these impacts occur inside the minds and hearts of the other person.  We have indirect evidence of it, but it’s easy to misinterpret. “Surely, she knew I was joking,” we think; or, “I can’t imagine what I said upset him; it wouldn’t have upset me.” Sometimes we’re right, but often we’re wrong.

There may be six reasons that your mind allows your behavior to become defensive. These are internal mental stances that we take as we listen to others.

  1. Your words and actions are focused on judging, criticizing, or evaluating the person you’re talking to.
  2. You treat the other person as an object rather than a human with feelings.
  3. Your words and actions seem carefully designed for some purpose other than interacting with them. If people think you’re being fake to get something you want, they may become defensive.
  4. Your words and actions seem to be geared toward controlling the other person. They may be even more defensive if it seems like you’re hiding the motives behind your behavior.
  5. You emphasize that you’re superior to the other person.
  6. You’re so sure that you know the right answers and the real truth that you aren’t willing to entertain the possibility that you might be wrong or even to listen to the other side.

What’s the effect?

Unfortunately, defensive behavior creates a reciprocal cycle. One party acts defensively, which causes the other party to respond defensively, which in turn causes the first party to raise their defenses even higher, and so on and so on. Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation.

The truth is that it can affect all your relationships with the individuals in your life and in the groups you interact with. If you often react to others in a defensive way, you might end up in divorce or in a relationship that becomes unhealthier day by day. If you’re defensive with your loved ones, you may create a very hostile, tense environment in your home.

Defensiveness at work can make it harder to get along with coworkers and supervisors. It can keep you from doing your best collaborative work, as well. Being emotionally defensive in your social group could make you an outcast, or you might remain at the center of the group but be secretly despised and unwanted.

When we get defensive, we put way more into self-preservation than we do into problem-solving. We’re trying to prove that we’re right rather than search for creative solutions. When this happens in a workplace, it can be a recipe for chaos and failure. Such impulses are especially harmful for bosses, managers and those in power. That behavior hurts more than just the defensive person. When we get defensive, adds Tamm, “we invite everyone else in the room to get defensive, too.”

How do we cure it?

Gottman has offered that the antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility.

Others have suggested that navigating this emotional minefield begins with understanding the cause of this automatic defensive response.

While research also suggests that self-affirmation has shown that simple reminders of self-integrity reduce people’s tendency to respond defensively to threat. Four experiments revealed that affirmations may be effective only when introduced prior to the initiation of a defensive response. Affirmations introduced before threatening feedback reduced defensive responding; affirming after a threat was effective in reducing defensiveness only if the defensive conclusion had yet to be reached.

  1. Be aware when it happens.
    • Begin to notice the signs of being defensive: a tense body, self-justification, and a sense that you are being criticized or rejected.
  2. Be kind when you notice the signs by offering affirmations to others.
    • Do not criticize yourself for reacting the way you do; instead, slow things down, and try to be compassionate with yourself the way you would to a loved one feeling the same way. Re-frame the behavior – Rather than label a person’s defensive behavior as bad, understand it for what it is – defensive. Once you understand it as defensive, then you can explore why the person is feeling threatened and work to address the threat(s). One of the reasons we get so frustrated with defensive people is we try to deal with the behavior without addressing the threat that is causing the behavior.
    • You don’t try to control someone else with your words and behavior. Instead, you try to work with them to solve a problem that’s coming between you.
    • You take an investigative approach rather than taking sides. You honestly consider the other person’s viewpoint.
  3. Attempt to regulate your defensive system by slowing down the moment in your mind.
    • I like this one: “Cultivate curiosity instead of judgment.” Another is “Cultivate inquiry instead of reactivity.”
    • Instead of planning out what you’re going to get from someone and the words and actions that you think will get it, you stay focused on the present moment and respond to what’s happening right now.
    • Replace negative feedback with questions or offers to help – If you have to regularly deal with someone who reacts defensively, you’ve probably noticed that the slightest bit of negative feedback sets them off. Try replacing the negative feedback with a question or an offer to help. For example, instead of saying “Sally, you made a mistake on this report,” rephrase it by saying “Sally, I’m not sure I understand this section on the report. Could you help me figure it out?” Remember, a person acts defensively because he/she perceives a threat. Try to make the situation non-threatening.
    • Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence – Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Through self-improvement, counseling, training, or mentoring, explore the causes of your defensive behavior. What are the triggers that make you feel threatened? Having a better understanding of yourself will not only help you regulate your own behavior, it will give you better insight into the behavior of others as well.
    • Move from dogmatism to openness – The less people feel boxed in to either/or, yes/no, right/wrong choices, the less threatening the situation. Of course there are times where things need to be done a specific way, but if you approach the situation with a spirit and attitude of openness rather than “my way or the highway,” you’ll get a more open response.
  4. Develop the skill of self-soothing.
    • Once you can recognize the signs of becoming defensive, learn to do something to change it, such as deep breathing or a simple stretch. Acknowledging what is happening (“I’m becoming defensive, and I want to take a moment to calm myself so I can hear what you are saying”) provides time and space—and often, compassion—for you and the other person.
    • Reduce the danger – Once you’ve identified the threat(s) causing the defensive behavior, work to reduce the perceived danger. Be moderate in your tone, even-tempered, empathize with their concerns, be respectful, and respond non-defensively to avoid escalating tensions.
  5. Treat people as equals – Approach other people in a collaborative manner, looking for ways to help them win in the situation. Take time to identify and recognize their needs, discover what’s important to them, and validate their concerns.
    • Rather than placing a judgment on the person you’re talking to, you merely describe whatever actions, words, or qualities you want to discuss.
    • You show care, concern and empathy for them.
    • You treat the other person like an equal person. Even if you may have certain things or abilities they don’t have, you do see them as an equal partner in solving the problem.

Adapted and Inspired by:

What Is Defensive Behavior and What Does It Look Like?

12 Truths About Defensive Behavior

Stop Being So Defensive!

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