A Guide To Talking To A Defensive Person (And Stay Calm)

Taking a defensive stance in a conversation is similar to a basketball player on the opposite team guarding your shot. When you encounter defensive behavior from someone-whether they put up a protective wall, shut down, or try to deflect the discussion back onto you-it’s easy to pivot from the initial topic and spend the rest of the conversation dodging defensive remarks. If you want to prevent a downward spiral, it can be helpful to consider how to talk to a defensive person before launching into a discussion that could trigger pushback (as well as having tips on how to respond to defensiveness in the heat of the moment).

Debra Roberts, LCSW, founder of the Relationship Protocol, says defensive responses are typically triggered by being accused of something negative in a conflict: “Whether you meant to blame them or not, defensive individuals tend to As a result, many people shut down and initiate the ever-frustrating silent treatment or lash out in an effort to shift the focus on you or to take responsibility for it. This obligates you to figure out how to resolve the problem..

A partner who doesn’t show curiosity in what you have to say or doesn’t take the time to hear what you have to say could be acting defensively, as well.” -Tracy Ross, LCSW

Defensive responses are less evident sometimes, however. You should also watch out for body language cues like a closed off stance, crossed arms, and eye rolling to determine if your partner is acting defensively. To identify defensive behavior in the works, couples and family therapist Tracy Ross offers these tips.

There is nothing wrong with figuring out how to talk to a defensive person while walking on eggshells. Some of their responses are likely to be familiar to you. Roberts says that everyone gets defensive from time to time. According to Roberts and Ross, the level of defensiveness and awareness can vary, so take the following tips to heart.

How to engage someone who is defensive:

1. Let your intentions be known up front.

Often it helps to anticipate a defensive response when addressing a particularly sensitive topic. “You may say, for example, ‘I would like to discuss yesterday’s events.’ My goal is not to attack you or make you feel defensive. As a result, I want to share my feelings with you, Mr. Roberts says. By setting expectations at the beginning, you will have less to worry about later.

2. Avoid accusatory statements.

Ross explains that the way a conversation begins sets the tone for how it will proceed: “Going in with guns blazing or dumping everything you’re feeling onto your partner won’t end well, even if they aren’t defensive.” As such, rather than introducing yourself as the person who made the mistake, introduce yourself as the one who had the experience, how you felt when it occurred, and how you would like it to have gone differently going forward.

3. Steer away from “always,” “never,” and you statements.

As with a “you” statement, which is often meant to cast blame – “you did that” or “you did that” – using superlatives such as “always” or “never” can easily blow the conversation out of proportion and make your partner feel attacked. When this happens, “the other person will find the exception, leading them down a rabbit hole of defensiveness,” Ross says. The author suggests using ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I’m pissed off at what happened’ or ‘I’m upset that you did that.’

In the heat of an argument, here are four tips for communicating with a defensive person:

1. Take ownership.

Since everyone’s emotions are shaped differently by their unique set of past experiences, it’s very possible that someone might interpret a comment of yours as accusatory, even if you never intended it that way. Whenever something is perceived as hurtful, it is important to apologize as soon as possible. It’s okay to apologize if I offended you. It wasn’t my goal,” Roberts says. It can be a simple but effective strategy for mitigating tension and restarting the conversation.

2. Educate yourself.

It may help your partner stay calm if you really listen to what he or she says, says Ross. Opening the floor to them can provide you with a variety of benefits in terms of general conversation, as well as the opportunity to learn what motivated their response.

In addition, you might ask yourself if anything you said or did actually triggered them, says Roberts. When the question is genuine, it is a really caring gesture. By doing so, it shows the other person you are interested in improving your relationship and avoid defensiveness down the line.”

3. Put no additional blame on yourself.

One of the worst responses to a person’s defensiveness (or worse, of having an “always” defensive attitude) is to accuse them of being defensive. The feeling of being attacked is one of the major triggers of defensiveness, so blaming someone for acting in such a way is likely to only serve to worsen the situation (literally).

4. Stop and rest.

De-escalating a conflict can be achieved by physically removing yourself from the same space, according to Ross. There are times when it takes someone a few minutes to realize that they had an overly intense reaction, to process it as defensiveness, and to be ready to reenter the original conversation. It may be that a person needs that time alone in order to understand your intentions were never to hurt them, says Ross, so as long as you promise to get back to them in 20 minutes instead of ending the conversation on a sour note.

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