Dealing with Defensiveness in Relationships


If you are a normal human, then you are regularly stuck dealing with defensiveness in relationships, both in yourself and in others. Defensiveness is the normal human reaction to threats to a person’s reputation and/or dignity. We are hardwired to protect ourselves both physically and emotionally and we do that by either fleeing or fighting. We call these “retreating” or “pushing” and both are signs of defensiveness. When we feel threatened, some of us, at times, get quiet and don’t say anything. Others argue back or provide justification for their actions. Depending on the situation and the person with whom we are interacting, all of us can, for the most part, resort to either defense mechanism.

The bottom line is that defensiveness, while normal, is also harmful and disruptive because it doesn’t help us think or communicate effectively. As a matter of fact, it causes us to “dumb down” and become cognitively less effective in the moment.

We call this process “the Defensive Cycle” and it looks like this:


  • It starts when we see or hear someone do or say something.
  • We then make a bad “guess” about why they did it. That bad guess is what is called the “Fundamental Attribution Error” because we mistakenly attribute the other person's action to some internal state of theirs that puts them into a bad light (e.g. poor motivation, selfishness, personal satisfaction in insulting or devaluing you in some way).
  • That interpretation then creates a desire in us to defend.
  • We then do so by either retreating (sulking, withdrawing, looking down, etc) or by pushing back (using harsh words, giving a harsh glare, etc).


  • The other person observes our action.
  • They interpret our response as offensive.
  • They likewise defend by either retreating or pushing.


  • We in turn respond and the cycle goes on until someone “wins” (actually until both lose because there is always a winner and a loser and when we lose we like to get even with the winner which leads to another defensive cycle).

Notice that the defensive cycle begins when one person does or says something and the other person “guesses” bad intent. It is that “guess” that is the problem because we can't determine the true intent unless we communicate. Unfortunately, the bad guess leads to anger or frustration which impedes the very communication we need.

Dealing with Us

We suggest that the key to defusing your defensiveness is to “Learn Your Trigger”. When you become angry or frustrated, let that emotion trigger curiosity rather than blame.

When you become angry or frustrated, think to yourself, “I must be guessing something bad. Why would this person have done or said that?”

Simply stopping and asking yourself this question interrupts the defensive cycle, re-engages your brain and keeps your cognitive skills at a higher level so that you can hold a more effective, less defensive conversation. So that is how you can help control your defensiveness, but what about the other person’s defensiveness?

Dealing with Them

Remember that defensiveness starts with a bad guess, so when the other person becomes defensive it is because they have attributed bad intent to what you have done or said. Your job is to help them understand your true intent which you can do by simply telling them what that intent is.

Use what we call a “Do/Don’t Statement” to accomplish this. Tell them what you do mean and, if necessary, tell them what you don’t mean.

For example

You and your spouse are planning to attend some event and it is time to leave. You are not sure that she is aware of the time since she doesn’t wear a watch, so you say to her…”Do you know what time it is“ and she responds with “I can tell time!”

To this you could respond with a Do/Don’t statement to clarify what you really mean…”I certainly don’t mean to insult you or make you feel rushed, I just wanted to know if you were aware that it is time to leave.”

Dealing effectively with both your defensiveness and the defensiveness of others will lead to happier, healthier relationships and a lot less “getting even”.

The Positive Side of Conflict

We usually treat conflict like a pest - a plague on organizational efficiency and effectiveness.  It disrupts operations, sours cultures and inhibits collaboration.  But is it always and entirely bad?  We suggest that there are two overlooked sides to conflict that, if managed correctly, can be harnessed for good and give your organization a boost:

1. Conflict gives rise to conversations about "undiscussables".  These are things that silently constrain healthy interaction among employees and that need to be resolved, but are considered minor enough that they do not outweigh the risk associated with trying to resolve them.  For example, employees might perceive that leadership does not respect their contributions.  This would normally be a topic of conversation that employees choose to avoid when in the company of the organization's leaders because, while bothersome, it is not so severe a problem that it warrants "rocking the boat."  When conflict arises, though, there are usually strong emotions involved and the parties will bring up issues such as this, which, in more sober moments, would be considered "undiscussable."  It then becomes the responsibility of the leader to take the opportunity to learn from the conflict driven discussion and make changes that will lead to increased productivity within their team.

2. Differences in opinion (conflict) can also fuel productive creativity.  Substantial research by Dr. Charlan Nemeth has demonstrated that, when people disagree, they put significantly more effort into supporting their positions.  In other words, we think through, develop and vet our own ideas much more thoroughly when we have to defend them against countervailing pressures.  Conflict among individuals can present such countervailing pressure and therefore increase analysis of ideas and lead to more positive discussion and thus increased creativity.  It goes without saying that such increased creativity can, when managed effectively also lead to organizational improvement and innovation.

Unfortunately, conflict is usually a destructive force in organizations.  People disagree, emotions elevate and the social bonds that keep organizations operating effectively begin to dissolve.  When unmanaged, this is what most conflict creates, but we have proposed that conflict has a positive side.  It presents us with an opportunity.  The key, of course, is for the conflict to be handled well.  When people (1) understand the anatomy of conflict - how and why it fuels emotional fires and spirals out of control - and (2) possess the skills to redirect conflict into healthy conversations, conflict becomes a uniquely positive force on organizations.