How to Talk to Someone Who Always Gets Defensive
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.”