How to Deal with Defensiveness and
Defensive People in Conversations

See also: Conversational Skills

Have you ever been in conversation with someone who easily gets defensive? Or maybe you’re that person?

One thing you may have noticed is that when defensiveness is present in conversations, they never go quite as well as you want them to. Conversations get stopped, communication gets blocked and, in the long run, relationships slowly erode.

That’s because defensiveness is THE ultimate conversation killer. Defensiveness and open communication are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — anytime one of them is around, the other one seems to completely vanish. And let’s be real — we all want to see a lot of more Dr. Jekyll (a.k.a. open communication) and a lot less of Mr. Hyde (defensiveness).

By extinguishing defensiveness when it rears its head, you’ll fight less, your conversations will be more productive, your life will be more peaceful, and you’ll share way more understanding between you and others.

So, how do we do that?

The first step to getting rid of defensiveness is to identify it as it happens in conversation. To identify the signs, we need to know what to look for.

So, without further ado, I present to you the 7 most common signs of defensiveness (that you want to try to avoid at all costs):

Sign #1 - Counter-complaining

Definition: When someone expresses a complaint or criticism, you counter with a complaint or criticism of your own, ignoring what your partner has said.

How this might look in a conversation:

Person 1: You didn’t clean your dishes again...
Person 2: Well, the bathroom you said you’d clean is still filthy!

*record scratch* Wait, what? We were talking about dishes, and then it became about the bathroom!

This sign of defensiveness is sneaky because Person 2 has a good reason to feel frustrated (because the bathroom still isn’t clean). It’s clear that, in the past, they made a request that has not yet been fulfilled.

But, that’s not what Person 1 was talking about.

So, what Person 2 is doing, in this case, is that they are absorbed in what matters to them instead of focusing on the question at hand (i.e., why they didn’t clean the dishes). They are ignoring Person 1’s comment. No wonder this conversation is about to get derailed!

Sign #2: Flip-flopping

Definition: In one move, you blame your partner AND defend yourself from attack, telling them that their criticism about you actually applies to them.

How this might look in a conversation:

Partner 1: You know, you’ve gone over your spending budget by $50 this month...
Partner 2: Well, last month you went over by $80 and I couldn’t afford to go out with my co-workers for lunch!

Unlike Sign #1, this one can easily go undetected because it is still on subject. Person 2 seems to be bringing up a completely valid point about money (i.e. last month you went over by $80).

But, even though the topic is still about money, they aren’t really addressing Person 1’s concerns.

The result? Instead of understanding and listening, there is guilt, shame and fear of punishment. This is a sure-fire way to bring defensiveness into a conversation.

Sign #3: Yes-Butting

Definition: This includes any comment that starts with an agreement and ends with disagreement, justifying their breach of agreement.

How this might look in a conversation:

Person 1: Why can’t we ever leave on time for our dinner dates?
Person 2: I know you want to leave on time but by the time I get home from work I simply don’t have enough time to get ready.

Yet another sneaky tactic. In this one, not only is Person 2 staying on topic, but they’re actually acknowledging Person 1’s complaint.

For this form of defensiveness, there is one clear tell-tale sign to know that you’re heading down a dangerous path: the words “Yeah, but…”

When we say “Yeah, but…” we are implying, “Yes, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m going to tell you why that’s completely irrelevant.”

If someone straight-up said that to you, how would you feel? Pretty unhappy, I bet.

Yes-Butting is like throwing a sugar-coated hand-grenade. It may be sweet and delicious on the outside, but it is ultimately damaging and hurtful.

Sign #4 - Making Excuses

Definition: This is when you claim that external forces (a.k.a. circumstances, outside events, or anything beyond your control) forced you to behave in a certain way.

How this might look like in a conversation:

Person 1: Why didn’t you prepare dinner like you promised?
Person 2: That big client of mine talks so much, there’s no way I could get away from work in time to get dinner ready.

Right off the bat, we are dealing with a particularly tricky sign of defensiveness. That’s because we often have really good excuses for why we do or don’t do things. We’re all (or at least most of us are) smart, rational, logical human beings, right? Obviously, I wanted to pick up the dry cleaning, but I have this amazing, bullet-proof excuse as to why I didn’t do it!

And here’s why this is so tricky - it’s because your excuse doesn’t matter. We are all reasonable people with lots of great reasons. But in the grand scheme of things, your reason isn’t very important when it comes to creating peace and understanding in a conversation. What’s important is Person 2’s reaction.

Notice how Person 2 focuses on defending themselves instead of taking responsibility for not preparing dinner. Once we become concerned with defending ourselves, use that as a cue that defensiveness is around the corner.

Sign #5 - Repeating Yourself

Definition: Thinking you are right, you repeat back your point of view—often louder—rather than try to understand your partner’s point of view.

How this might look in a conversation:

Person 1: I’d like to go home now.
Person 2: I just want to stay for a few more minutes.
Person 1: I really don’t want to stay here any longer.
Person 2: Honest, I just want to stick around a bit more!

This is the most common sign of defensiveness within families and couples. We think to ourselves, “Oh, maybe they didn’t hear me. I’ll just repeat what I said louder so that it sinks in.

This sign goes in the same category as nagging, saying things “differently”, and “reminding” the other person.

Sign #6 - Denial of responsibility

Definition: No matter what your conversation partner says, you maintain that you are not to blame.

How this might look in a conversation:

Partner 1: I can’t find the remote since you last used it.
Partner 2: I don’t know why you always blame ME when something goes missing!

Denying responsibility is a common theme among all signs of defensiveness. We often deny responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions when we communicate. Not only is this untrue, but it comes off as completely inauthentic.

Sign # 7 - Non-Verbal Language

Definition: Expressing defensiveness through non-verbal cues.

This one might seem like the most obvious, yet it is often the hardest to detect. Some common non-verbal cues include:

  • Whining
  • Crossing of the arms
  • Change in tone
  • Change in speed of talking
  • Tension in the jaw
  • Heat in your chest and/or limbs

Everyone experiences defensiveness differently in their body, but the key is that we all experience it! By getting more familiar with how it comes up in your body, you can take action to become less defensive and keep the lines of communication open.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills eBooks.

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Develop your interpersonal skills with our series of eBooks. Learn about and improve your communication skills, tackle conflict resolution, mediate in difficult situations, and develop your emotional intelligence.

Moving Beyond Defensiveness

Now that you know the signs, there is one last key step - practice! When you notice yourself or your conversation partner starting to get defensive, take note.

  • Does it happen often?
  • Are there any trigger topics?
  • How does it feel in your body?

If the conversation is getting heated and you’re not sure what to do - take a break! Call a timeout and go for a walk. Come back and try having the conversation again. Avoid saying things you might regret!

Once you are able to more easily identify defensiveness, you can put actions in place to ensure that it stays out of your conversations for good.

About the Author

Jonathan Miller helps high-performing couples upgrade their communication skills to have an argument-free relationship. Find our more at Mindful Communication.