Defensive people are the WORST! It drives me nuts when I give even the most minor piece of feedback and the person on the other end gets all hot under the collar and ignores every word I said. Grow up, people. You’re not perfect and pretending that you are is making you insufferable. Seriously!

That’s how many of us feel when we have to deal with defensive people. Here’s the problem: taking that position makes you just as self-centered, closed-minded, and stuck as they are. We’re thinking about defensiveness all wrong.

Back up.

What is Defensiveness?

When I talk about defensiveness, I’m talking about when people close themselves off to uncomfortable feedback. Imagine that you give someone this feedback, “For our launch plan, I gave you three ideas for how to do public relations and none of the ideas is included in your document. I feel like you didn’t value my contributions.”

Defensiveness might show up as disagreement or contradiction, such as “I did take your ideas they are incorporated in the plan!” Alternatively, it might take the form of distraction or displacement, “You didn’t even listen to me about what I needed!” Defensiveness can also be passive, where the person seems to listen to the feedback but ultimately either ignores or rationalizes why it doesn’t matter, “You’re not the boss of me!” Defensiveness is any thought or action that attempts to invalidate uncomfortable feedback.

A Different Approach

What if you were to replace the word “defensive” with “self-protective?” What if every time someone disagreed, or diverted, or ducked your feedback, you thought about what was causing them to feel the need to protect themselves from your message? That mindset would change everything.

The problem with how we tend to deal with defensiveness is that we get too wrapped up in ourselves and our own feelings. When a colleague shoots down your feedback, you take it as aggression, or a slight, or a sign that they don’t value you. You get frustrated or annoyed that your words didn’t magically unlock their problem. But it’s not about you.

Instead of getting caught up in your own reactions to defensiveness, try understanding what triggered the reaction in the first place. Be empathetic. There are so many ways that a little more empathy would make our teams healthier and this is one of them. People are defensive when they feel there’s something dangerous they need to protect against.

Things to Think About

Here are some things to think about when you trigger defensiveness.

  • Did I overstep while giving feedback? Did I make a judgment about the person that was unfair? How can I dial it back to my observations and show that I’m talking about behavior, not character?
  • Do I have power over the person that makes my feedback more potent or more alarming? How can I express my intent for feedback to be helpful, not hurtful?
  • Does our team have a culture of perfection? How can I make it clear that being open to constructive feedback is a sign of strength, not weakness?
  • Does the person need some time and space to consider the feedback? How can I leave the person with some questions that will help them be curious, not protective?

It’s in the best interest of everyone on a team to cure defensiveness when it pops up. Defensiveness limits learning, and you don’t want someone who can’t learn on your team. Defensiveness is also toxic to connection. It inhibits communication and eats away at trust. If you see defensiveness on your team, you need to do something about it.

Just remember, treating defensiveness as an offense will only make it worse. Instead, think about it as self-protection and try to understand and empathize with why the person feels a need to protect from your message. If you can help the person crack that open, you’ll be doing them a favor that will last a lifetime.

Further Reading

How to help a teammate who is being defensive

How to deliver feedback

When feedback triggers backlash