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Three Steps For Diffusing Defensiveness

When you interpret someone criticizing something that you care deeply about, it is natural to want to defend. So, how do you move through that defensiveness to get to productive dialogue?

Three Steps For Diffusing Defensiveness

Paul was presenting the results of the project that he had been working on for the past month, to the team. Rather than the accolades or positive feedback he had been expecting, he was met with, “Are you sure your data is correct?” from Sam.

Mary piped in with, “Even if the data is correct, I don’t agree with your interpretation of it.

”Paul, immediately felt his defenses come up, “You guys don’t understand. I have spent hours on this project!” His posture got stiff as he crossed his arms.

“Geeze, Paul don’t get defensive! We are just giving you are feedback.” Sam retorted.

(Can you guess what Paul’s response was?)

“I am not getting defensive!” Paul said a bit too loudly and abruptly.

The Myth About Defensiveness

There is a myth that some of us are defensive and some of us are not. Wrong!

Everyone gets defensive, at times. Don’t believe me? Just imagine something you have a large investment in, care deeply about, or have pride in, e.g. a business idea, an article you’ve written, something you have created by hand, your home, your spouse, or even your child. Now, imagine people, who you think will be positive towards it, begin by giving you all the things they don’t like about it.


When you interpret someone criticizing, something that you care deeply about, it is a natural and healthy response to be defensive. Albeit, not always helpful in creating good dialogue.

So, how do you move through that defensiveness to get to productive dialogue? That is the question!

Three Magic Steps For Diffusing Defensiveness

Whether you are experiencing someone getting defensive or you are feeling defensive, here are some sure fire ways to move through it to get to healthy dialogue.

Scenario One: You interpret someone being defensive.

Rather than saying, “Stop being so defensive!” which just works to increase the person’s defensiveness, try this:

  • Reflect back the gist of what you think the other person is experiencing, meaning what they are saying, and how you think they might be feeling.

  • Pause and let the person respond. This usually allows the person to vent some of that pressure they are feeling inside.

  • Empathize, meaning if you were standing in that person’s shoes, share if you have some appreciation of how they might be feeling.

So let’s see Sam try this out with Paul.

Sam opens with, “Paul, sounds like you are frustrated that we are questioning both your data and your interpretation of the data. Does that fit for you?”

Paul responds “Heck yeah! I worked my butt off on this, and think both my data and interpretations are spot on. I’m pissed that you only seem to be interested in criticizing my work!”

Sam follows up with, “Hey, if I were in your shoes, and I had put so much time and effort into this project, and the first thing I heard was people questioning me, I’d feel frustrated too.”

What this does is acknowledge that Paul is feeling that way for some good reason. With acknowledgement Paul will either ask for what he needs, or hopefully be more open to hearing from folks.

Scenario Two: You are feeling defensive.

The shoe is on the other foot, and you are the one feeling defensive, there is something you can try as well.

  • Reflect back what you are hearing people say.

  • Acknowledge the impact on you, meaning what is happening inside of you. If you skip this step, you may get more of their “criticizing” ideas before you are ready to hear them.

  • Ask for what you need to hear in order to be open to what you interpret as criticism.

Let’s see Paul use this technique with the team.

Paul feeling tense inside, rather than blurting, says “Wow, so let me see if I have this. Sam, you disagree with the data, and Mary, sounds like you disagree with my conclusions. Hmm.

“I have to say, this isn’t easy for me to hear. Actually, I feel quite defensive and want to push back, but am going to try not to.“

What would help me is to first hear if there is anything anyone does agree with.”

What this does is buy Paul time to recalibrate internally, and try to be open to what the feedback is. It also lets his teammate know, that while they have their own opinions, the way they are going about giving them isn’t working for Paul.

In Summary

Most people don’t like feeling defensive, or being around someone who is caught in defensiveness. However, it is a natural response when we interpret that something we care about is being attacked. The key is how you navigate through.

If it is someone else being defensive: Reflect, Pause, and Empathize.

If it is you feeling defensive: Reflect, Acknowledge and Ask.

Let us know what works for you and what doesn’t.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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