Learn more about defensive behavior, and get advice on how to approach and resolve conflict with a defensive person.
Conflict happens frequently in personal relationships, at work, and even in public. Friction can be necessary, and even healthy at times.
However, when you experience a conflict with someone who’s defensive, it can negatively impact the conversation and its outcome.
Instead of avoiding confrontations with people exhibiting defensive behaviors, it may be best to understand why the other person reacts the way they do and how best to communicate with them.
Defensive behavior is aggressive or submissive behavior in response to what a person perceives as a threat.
This type of reaction to a problem may be easy to spot. Your instinct tells you that your conversation has turned to where the person appears threatened for a reason, whether readily apparent or not.
Research from 2020 suggested that people use defensiveness to give themselves a break when they do something wrong. A person may become defensive because they’re:
- misrepresenting or forgetting what occurred
- deflecting blame onto others
- trying to maintain social status
- minimizing the harm caused
- denying responsibility
- disengaging from the situation
People may also become defensive due to anxiety. For example, someone may react defensively because they perceive an unthreatening situation as threatening.
Since you can’t always avoid conflict, it may be beneficial to consider these tips and tricks for communicating effectively, especially with someone defensive.
Grow your self-awareness
Before you can focus on others’ reactions to conflicts, it’s best to grow your self-awareness. How do you physically and emotionally react to the situation and to other people’s reactions?
Understanding yourself can help you regulate your own emotions as well as clarify misunderstandings.
In addition, it’s generally a good idea to remain open-minded to the ideas and perspectives of others.
Self-awareness is considered one aspect of emotional intelligence (EI). EI is the ability to understand, manage, and use your emotions in positive ways to help communicate with others, relieve stress, and diffuse conflict.
Research shows that EI:
- Grows flexible methods of coping. These apply to social challenges, social stress, and interpersonal conflicts.
- Enhances emotional regulation. It helps to decrease your negative emotions while increasing positive feelings.
- Develops supportive social networks. You become more aware of the quality of your current social relationships and how to improve them moving forward.
Use ‘I’ statements
One of the most effective methods of communicating with a defensive person is using “I” statements. This means framing the effects of situation around your personal experience, not on what the other person did wrong or what it might mean about them as a person.
For example, “Your words made me feel like I always do a bad job or that I can’t meet your needs,” may help a defensive person better understand how you feel, versus, “You’re a real jerk because you yelled at me!”
Avoiding conflict isn’t always healthy. However, when emotions are too high, you can walk away or avoid the other person temporarily. Then, you can reapproach the subject once both sides are calm and ready to face it with a more open mind.
An agreed-upon intermediary may also be helpful in resolving the issue. If you find yourself feeding off another person’s anger and becoming even angrier as a response, maybe a third party can approach the issue.
Try to remain uncompetitive when approaching someone on the defense. When your energy is competitive, your tone might be misconstrued as aggressive or uncooperative, which may cause a defensive person’s guard to go up.
Consider only responding in a competitive or forceful way when there is an emergency, such as when someone is in danger or when there are serious safety concerns.
Accommodate, within reason
When you accommodate a defensive behavior, you probably won’t have your needs met. However, it may be practical when:
- one person is wrong
- the matter is more important to others
- settlement of the conflict is more important than the disagreement
It may be best not to continuously use this response in disagreements with the same person, as it may lead to resentment and negatively impact the relationship long term.
When you compromise, you decide to negotiate with one another.
Compromise is often the best course of action when settling a conflict is more important than getting what you want.
However, this method may be limiting because you may be focused on ways to bend that could compromise some of your needs while trying to meet the needs of the other. This may not be as helpful a strategy they consistently push you to concede or compromise.
Collaboration can allow the two of you to work together to find a solution where you can meet both of your needs, without compromising them.
How should I approach conflict?
There are steps you can take when faced with a conflict:
- Decide if you need to address the conflict. Is the reward worth the price of addressing the issue? If not, it may be best to let it go.
- Prepare for the conversation. Is this the first time you’ve experienced the problem? If so, focus on that. However, if this is a repeated issue, focus on the pattern of behaviors instead.
- Focus on the relationship. If the problem impacts your work relationship, friendship, or romantic relationship, focus on the relationship itself and how the conflict affects it.
- Understand your position. Gather all the background information and data to present to the other party. Then, think about how you’d be willing to compromise or collaborate on the matter.
- Consider why the other person is behaving this way. If you were in their shoes, how would you react? Why would a rational person respond like this? Having empathy for the other may help resolve the issue quicker.
Conflict can be healthy, but it may be challenging when the other person becomes defensive. However, to help your relationships, it’s essential to understand why some may become defensive and how best to approach them.
You should consider releasing your judgment of the other person and consider why they’re reacting in such a way. For example, is there a more significant issue you’re not seeing? Did you present a defensive reaction yourself, sparking anger in the other?
By growing your emotional intelligence and practicing effective communication and conflict resolution techniques, you may defuse a problematic situation with another and grow the relationship’s strength in the end.
If you’re defensive in disagreements, you can speak to a mental health professional to better understand and lessen your defensive behaviors. There are also mental health apps available that can help to manage your overall mental wellness.
Are you currently in crisis?
If you feel like you’re having a mental health emergency, you can:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for English and 888-628-9454 for Spanish
- Chat with professionals at Lifeline Chat
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741
- Check out Befrienders Worldwide or Suicide Stop if you’re not in the United States and need to find your country’s crisis hotline
If you decide to call an emergency number like 911, ask the operator to send someone trained in mental health, like Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officers.