Highly defensive people are very sensitive to certain subjects causing them to go into a sort of fight or flight response. After all, why jump into a defensive posture unless you think there’s a threat?
The threat is typically not realistic, but that’s only an outsider’s perspective because to the person with the defensive behavior, the threat could be very real to them. But what exactly are they threatened by?
I received a letter from a listener that was dealing with a defensive person at work. Her coworker would get very defensive whenever anyone would talk about “controversial subjects” around her. The letter writer didn’t tell me exactly which controversial subjects were being discussed, but I could only assume that they were the typical ones that most people have a very staunch opinion on.
In other words, they were probably subjects that some people have taken a firm stance on, and they’ve committed to that stance, so they might feel that anyone against their stance is against them.
When you commit to an idea, a concept, a belief, or a set of values or ideals, your identity is tied up in that commitment. When someone comes along and says anything against what you’ve committed to, you might take it as an attack on your character and, therefore, a threat to your identity.
We can get so wrapped up in a commitment to a stance that we become sensitive and close-minded to anyone else’s thoughts or opinions. An attitude like this might be helpful if you’re running for office or trying to defend a client in a courtroom, but it’s not always productive to bring it home or into the office for some water cooler talk.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about controversial subjects. In fact, I’d prefer if everyone could see both sides of all issues just so that we could all learn what we can from every perspective; That way, we could come to more informed conclusions. But what typically happens is that many of us already have a conclusion in mind when a conversation starts. And because of that, we might leave little room for new learnings.
Furthermore, some people may be scared that if what you’re saying has any credence, it might encroach on their belief system, causing them to have to re-analyze what they hold to be true. And if they believe you have any chance of making their comfortable truth anything but the truth, they will become defensive.
But how do you get through to someone who becomes defensive? Do you get defensive as well and hope that you win the battle? If you do, you’ll likely hurt someone’s feelings and say words that you can’t take back. You’re not responsible for other people’s feelings, but it can and does happen, so it’s something to be aware of.
Personally, I think the best approach is curiosity. Be intensely and genuinely curious about why they’re defensive. Drop your attachments to your own beliefs and ideas about what truth is for a few minutes and try to understand what they believe to be true and why.
Being curious about someone’s beliefs puts you in a state of intense caring about them. Even if your intention is not to care but to just learn more, just the fact that you want to know what they believe and why they believe it will make them feel more at ease and not so defensive. In fact, they may even get a little nervous that someone wants to know the details of what they believe because then they’ll have to face their own reasons for believing what they believe.
Do you know what happens when someone dives into your truths and wants to know everything they can about them? You typically discover that you don’t know as much as you thought you did! If you are given enough space to share your thoughts and opinions with someone who is really interested in why you believe what you believe, you may start to realize that you still haven’t learned all you can about what you believe. That’s because there’s always more to learn about almost everything that exists.
Of course, defensive people might get more defensive when they are forced to face their own truths. But at least they get a chance to discover if what they believe is based on what’s really true, or what they’ve generalized to be true. Sometimes, what’s true and what’s assumed can be equally difficult to prove or disprove. But you don’t want to approach a defensive person with the motive to prove something, because that might set them off.
Instead, approach them with an intense curiosity and desire to learn what they believe and why they believe it. Not only will they be more at ease because someone is not putting them down for their beliefs, but they’ll be more open to learning other points of view since they weren’t forced to become defensive in the first place. This approach may not work with everyone, but at least there’s a better chance it won’t be perceived as an attack.
This isnt very helpful because it talks only about “idea, a concept, a belief, or a set of values or ideals,” What about interpersonal relationships, where you’re not discussing politics, but behavior? For example, your wife constantly criticizes, and when you bring it up, she always denies it, 100% of the time? How do you get them to quit criticizing everything about you? Divorce?
This article could cover so much more, I agree. I added a suggested podcast episode to the bottom of the article that gets into it a bit more.
To answer your question directly, you have to address criticisms in the moment. If you say, “You always criticize me,” all the moments have already passed and it’s easy to make stuff up and say, “No, I don’t.”
Catch the criticism in the moment and address it right away. i.e., “Hey, that’s not very kind of you to criticize me about this. I’m doing my best. Will you please not do that again?”
I know I make it sound easy, but I know with some people it’s not. But it does have to be addressed in the moment.
Here are another couple of episodes that could be helpful:
You may be experiencing emotionally abusive behavior. My podcast Love and Abuse (link to one of the episodes above) could be a big help in this department.
Thanks for your comment. I wish you much strength for whatever you’re going through.