Your loved one hurt your feelings or crossed a boundary. You’re trying to talk to them about it. But as soon as you start expressing yourself, they cross their arms. They look away. They start playing with their phone. They say things like: Why are you criticizing me? and I know you think I’m a terrible person. They start defending their behavior. They list a litany of reasons why you’re actually in the wrong.
In other words, they get defensive. In fact, they get defensive any time you try to have a real conversation with them.
And this defensiveness feels a lot like they don’t care. You feel like your feelings don’t matter to them. You feel like you don’t matter. According to marriage and family therapist Jennine Estes, defensiveness is actually “rarely intentional.” Rather it’s a knee-jerk reaction that shields the person from guilt and self-doubt, she said.
“People who are defensive have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions and often feel uncomfortable being ‘wrong.’ [That’s] because accepting responsibility would make them feel as if they have failed.”
Defensive behavior might stem from a tough childhood or traumatic past, which can make a person more likely to “react through a negative lens,” said Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT, a psychotherapist and founder of Love and Life Toolbox. Kids often develop this behavior as a way to cope with difficult situations, said Estes, who owns a group practice called Estes Therapy in San Diego. Then it “becomes a bad habit as an adult.” Individuals also might grow up with a sinking self-esteem and a deep belief that they’re not good enough.
Defensiveness is like a spotlight, Estes said. “When you share pain with your loved one, that bright spotlight shifts from you to them. The defensiveness is a way to shift the spotlight back on to you, instead of keeping it on what really matters—the initial issue.”
We can’t control others’ reactions or actions. But we can increase the chances that they’ll listen to us by communicating in a constructive way. As Estes, said, “Relationships are like baby mobiles: If you tug on one side, the whole structure moves. If you shift your response, even just a little bit, the other person will automatically have to change their behavior.” Here’s how.
Avoid using “blame” language. Don’t start a sentence with “you,” as in “You didn’t hear me, again!” or “You just don’t care about how I feel!” said Estes, the author of Relationships in the Raw. Also, avoid using “always” and “never.” “These words give no wiggle room, and can be very critical, causing a person to defend their position.” Start on a positive note. According to Kift, tell the other person what they mean to you, such as: “You’re a great friend and I’m telling you this because I care about you…” Also, show appreciation for what the person has done, Estes said. “If they don’t feel like their good efforts are acknowledged and only hear about how they messed up again, they will feel defeated.”
She shared this example: “I appreciate how you tried to handle our kid’s tantrum in the store. I know it wasn’t easy and I am glad I am not alone in this. You did your best. Can we talk about how we can both handle these public tantrums in the future?”
Start with some vulnerability and responsibility. Be vulnerable with the person, and take some responsibility for the situation. Estes shared this example: “I always felt as if I didn’t matter as a child. I was never seen. Now, when I talk and the TV is on, I feel like I am invisible again. You probably don’t mean to send me that message at all. I know how much you like your show. But it actually hurts and brings me back to that place of being a kid again.”
Focus on your feelings. “Beginning with an expression of how you feel is a good way to disarm defensive behavior,” Kift said. She suggested using this sentence structure: Say how you felt (your emotion) when they did what they did (their behavior). She shared this example: “I felt unimportant to you when you said we would go to dinner last night and then you canceled on me at the last minute.”
Ask meaningful questions. Estes suggested asking the other person how they’re feeling. “Be sincerely curious around their response. Deep down, it might be the little kid feeling as if they are not good enough and they need your compassion.”
For instance, according to Estes, you might say: “It seems like my question upset you. Is there something I said that makes you feel like you need to protect yourself?” or “It seems like my comment upset you. Did my comment make you feel attacked or hurt in any way?”
Don’t lose your temper. Of course, this isn’t easy to do when someone isn’t listening to you, or is listing off 20 reasons why they’re right. But losing your cool just adds fuel to the fire, Estes said. “Put down that pitchfork and stay focused on the feelings of hurt underneath it all.” Slow down, and take several deep breaths. And if you can’t calm down, tell the person you need to take a break.
Sometimes, you can do all the right things to have a constructive conversation—watch your words, be vulnerable—and the other person still gets defensive. In these cases, you can apologize and say it’s not your intention, Kift said. Remember that defensive behavior can stem from deeper issues, which have more to do with the person, than with your approach.