Defensiveness is an evil enemy. It gets in the way of personal and professional growth and success and it is an extremely hard habit to break. Being defensive hampers your emotional intelligence and systemically dismantles your relationships, both at work and at home. It diminishes your capacity to be adaptive and flexible and reduces your active listening skills, hindering your ability to make analytical assessments and decisions that help you lead more effectively.  


What is Defensiveness? 

Defensiveness is a coping skill — a response to a perceived attack or criticism. In general, there are two ways to respond: 

  • You can deny it, act out, attack, blame someone else, or 
  • You can intellectually rationalize the perceived attack or criticism.  

Unfortunately, the most common response is the first one. When we feel fragile, our brain instinctively kicks into fight or flight mode. A defensive person will blame others, whether that’s the person who is bringing the complaint to them or someone else. They’ll turn the tables and project onto someone else (“I’m not angry; you’re angry!”). Most importantly, they are incapable of deeply listening when they are in the state of defensiveness, and they have no self-awareness of the impact. That’s because their amygdala is triggered, their lens is narrowed and they are unable to engage their prefrontal cortex – the executive functioning part of their brain.  So, instead of listening, they generally attack and shirk all accountability. Their goal is simple – move away from the pain and get out of harm’s way.   

In the moment, they are not interested in change nor are they capable of employing curiosity to learn more about the situation surrounding the concern or complaint. Instead, a defensive person will use multiple strategies to attempt to make the situation go away and to avoid those difficult feelings of not being good enough. Their focus is to clarify and explain their perception, dismiss the feedback, or finger-point. They will do everything in their power to shift the focus away from themselves.  

Because defensiveness is typically subconscious, the person is not aware it’s happening to them, especially not in the moment. Our mind protects us from the unwanted feelings seemingly caused by the criticism. But often, we are not accurately interpreting the situation. Most of the time, there’s no threat at all.   

Wrecking Ball

Defeating Defensiveness 

Defensiveness is incredibly hard to overcome because it’s a reflexive habit that gets stronger over time. And you only have five milliseconds to stop yourself from going down that reactive rabbit hole. It’s extremely damaging to interpersonal relationships, whether at home or at work. No change can happen until you can break through this powerful defense mechanism. 

So, how can you approach someone to start to soften their defensiveness? 

  1. Timing is everything. You do not want to approach someone at the height of an upset. You want to bring down the probability of the person getting anxious, angry or fearful. 
  2. Change your tone so that whatever you are approaching with does not feel like a direct criticism but rather a suggestion.  
  3. Set up the context so that the focus is on what can happen in the future, rather than what has already happened in the past.  
  4. Manage your own reactivity, even if the person escalates. If that happens, suggest taking a 20-second time out to do some breathing exercises together.  
  5. Be sensitive. Check in and ask how they are feeling throughout the conversation.  
  6. Take emotion out of the conversation and approach it as a problem-solving situation.  

Here’s how a possible conversation could go:  

“Let’s find some time to meet tomorrow. I want to walk through with you something that I’ve observed that I think is getting in the way of your performance. I want you to be as successful as possible in your role, so I’d like to partner with you on ways to be even more effective.” 

When you meet with the person, you should actually make an effective request rather than lodge a criticism. Here are the elements of an effective request: 

  1. A committed speaker — Be engaged and specific in your request. 
  2. A committed listener — Make sure the other person is attentive and clear in their understanding of your request. 
  3. Future action/conditions of satisfaction — Provide specific parameters in your request. 
  4. Time frame — Be clear about your expectation of completion/deadline. 
  5. Mood/tenor — Make sure your tone is appropriate when making the request. 
  6. Context — Provide an explanation of how your request fits into the big picture. 

Let’s use the example of approaching someone who is habitually late to work and typically very defensive. Instead of leading the conversation with a complaint about their tardiness, you can make a request that for the next week, you want them to make a concerted effort to come in ten minutes before their scheduled time each day. You can point out ways this can have a positive impact on their day. Instead of arguing with the person about whether they are actually late, how often it happens and hearing a bunch of excuses, you are creating a different context to the situation so they can see you are trying to help them, rather than trigger them.   

Executive Defensiveness 

Defensiveness doesn’t just happen at the lower levels in an organization. I see this same coping mechanism reveal itself in 360 interviews with my executive coaching clients. A 360-degree review is based on an employee self-assessment and peer reviews, as well as superior and subordinate feedback. Here are some examples of defensiveness feedback I’ve seen: 

  • “He always needs to be right.” 
  • “She has to be the smartest person in the room.” 
  • “He is always quick to point fingers and blame others.” 
  • “She loves the praise. She’ll always take credit for a win, but never a loss.” 
  • “He bends the truth to justify his behavior.” 
  • “I’m always walking on eggshells around her in fear that she will blow up.”  
  • “He’s always focused on other teams’ performances and not his own.” 

Defensiveness is a deep threat to someone’s self-esteem because they feel attacked, and it’s so ingrained that people are often completely blind to it. At the same time, most supervisors are not equipped to psychologically deal with this level of behavior, so it’s generally handled by an executive coach who uses cognitive behavior techniques. There’s no question that being defensive not only affects the person themselves, but it also affects their direct reports, their peers and even their supervisors so addressing it benefits the entire organization.  

Crucial Conversations

Having the Tough Talk 

However, defensiveness often goes unaddressed in the workplace simply because people don’t want to deal with it. They would rather avoid an uncomfortable situation. If this describes you and you have someone on your team that is defensive, I recommend reading the book Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny to give you the tools for these tough conversations.  

Related: The Cost of Avoiding Crucial Conversations 

Another factor to consider is whether what you are saying is being heard correctly. You may think you are being very objectively clear in your delivery, but it might be prudent to remind the person that you are not attacking them, rather you are attacking the situation to find a solution. Remember, they might have a blind spot and lose their ability to actively listen. They may be interpreting your conversation all wrong, so it’s perfectly fine to ask them “What did you hear me say?” before you wrap things up to make sure everyone is on the same page.   

MindMastery™ at Work 

Defensiveness is a lifelong emotional habit that is very challenging to change because the individual has likely used it as a way to survive for their entire life. It’s a defense mechanism that is often rooted in painful experiences, but you can work on it in small steps.  

If you find yourself being defensive, I can’t think of a better time to apply MindMastery™. First, we work to identify your mood state when you are triggered (if you need help with this, I have a reference list of 850+ words as a place to start). The next step is practicing breathing exercises to get your brain back under control. You use executive functioning skills to assess what is actually being said versus how you are interpreting it and how you are feeling. And finally, you can reframe your perception of being threatened to welcoming help to be the best leader you can be.  

Instead of being closed to feedback, take a deep breath, pause, and find some piece of what the person said that you believe to be true. “Yes, I admit that I am often late for work on Mondays.” By acknowledging a part of the feedback with a different cognitive response, you are taking a small step to being able to reframe the situation with a different lens or perspective rather than becoming defensive. 

Working with a coach, especially one with a background in psychology can often be a game-changing move for people who employ defensive tendencies. While it will take self-awareness, mindfulness, an understanding of one’s underlying operating system, and repetitive practice to change this habit, the payoff both professionally and personally can be profound!  

Know this – you simply aren’t capable of optimizing your performance if you are defensive. In fact, defensiveness is the very thing keeping you from making positive change. It gets in the way of what’s possible for you, your team and your organizational leadership capacity.  

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