When Someone Becomes Defensive Toward You in Conversation

Woman Yelling at Her Neighbor

Being caught off guard when someone becomes defensive and makes surprising or shocking remarks is a thought stopper and your automatic emotional trigger is ready to pull.  The mindful pause is the first protection to employ when this happens.  Let what’s happened sink in so that a context and understanding can form before you draw the proverbial sword of your own defense reaction.

Using Curiosity Instead of Emotion

Reacting with emotion will not serve to alleviate the situation, but curiosity can help you find out what is really going on.

Etiquette-ful response scenario:

  • “Beth, I’m taken aback a little here.  Do you mind if I ask how you come to that conclusion?”
  • Listen carefully then clarify.  “Beth, if I’m hearing you correctly, from your point of view, I was being totally insensitive.  Am I close to understanding what you’re saying?”
  • No doubt Beth will begin sharing more.  Your calmness will most likely give Beth assurance that she is being heard.
  • Add apology into the equation.  “Please accept my apology.  I did not realize that we were not in a good place and am grateful that you’ve cleared some of this up.  I would never mean to be careless in my speech, and I realize now that you were hurt.”

In the scenarios above, the speaker is responding to the person on the defensive by using “I” statements to frame the effects of the situation in their own experience, substituting curiosity for fueling the flames of accusation.

It may be that settlement of the conflict is far more important than coming out on topic with further disagreement.  You might not get what you want—an understanding of your point of view or may be a compromise, but if you are trying to learn about the other person and their triggers, what might be considered a loss now may be a win in the long run.

When Someone Becomes Defensive to Take a Stand

There are some scenarios when someone becomes defensive because they think they are taking a stand and are putting their beliefs about the situation out in front of you.  It may feel like parading to you, but no one should be asked to abandon their beliefs.

By practicing diplomacy, you can be clear on your beliefs in the midst of others standing up for theirs.  Kindness and firmness are not enemies, but being tactful can help smooth the path.

  • “Beth, do you have time to meet-up for coffee?  I would love catching up.  Good idea?”
  • “I know we don’t always agree on what the facts are, but I want you to know how much I care for you and value our friendship.  You have had my back so many times and I want to have yours, too.”
  • “I want to move back into our happy zone, and I hope both of us can give up taking what’s happened personally.  After all, we are wonderful people and have a beautiful friendship!”

The bottom line is that when someone becomes defensive or passive aggressive, they see the need to protect themselves from what feels like a personal attack.  When they tend to take things personally, they are fearful and beneath it all don’t want to be rejected or feel incompetent or judged.

The first rule of etiquette is to be respectful and courteous, so when someone we know, like, and love shocks us, being as calm and as kind as possible is the first step in handling the situation with compassion.

"Defensiveness is normal and universal. It is also the archenemy of listening. Defensiveness makes it impossible to truly know our partner or be known.”  ~ Harriet Lerner

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