Reducing Defensiveness

Objective: To reduce the likelihood that you will react defensively during tough conversations or when receiving negative feedback or criticism.

 What to Know: Do you get defensive when others point out something you dislike or agree with? Perhaps you received upsetting feedback, or they criticized you. You might respond by protecting your character or distancing yourself from a mistake.

 Maybe you blame outside forces or judge others to make yourself feel better. But if you frequently get defensive, you will push people away, and over time, your overreactions and counterattacks can undermine relationships.

 It is normal to feel defensive because the amygdala (the part of your brain that scans the environment for threats) cannot tell the difference between a psychological and a physical threat. You become defensive because you do not feel safe.

 But sometimes it is not appropriate to respond defensively. If you react defensively, here are some tips to help you.

 1. Remember your values, beliefs, and passions. You can do this without a direct confrontation. For example, if you received a poor annual review at your job, avoid beating yourself up.

 Instead, focus on areas where you feel confident, such as your religious faith or your passion for learning. Focusing on your values, beliefs, and passions can increase your self-esteem and reduce the need to become defensive.

 2. View criticism as a sign of others’ belief in your abilities. Perhaps the people in your life are hoping to offer guidance or feedback that will help you. For example, if you recognize your boss is offering feedback to support you in achieving success, you might be more likely to receive the information without becoming defensive.

 3. Cultivate a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset involves being curious and seeking learning opportunities to improve yourself—even if it means failing. If feedback helps you—or it is neutral and aim—focus on self-improvement. Take a step back, reflect, and adopt a growth mindset. View mistakes and failures as inevitable. Your abilities can improve over time with effort. Ask questions like, “What can I do differently next time?”

 4. Buy some time. If you are having a conversation and feel yourself getting defensive, pause and gather your thoughts. Use filler words and let the other person continue speaking. You might say, “Go on…,” or “Say more about that.” Take a few slow breaths and consider how you will respond. Use silence. To break the silence, the other person will probably start talking again.

 5. Use “I” statements. “I” statements are essential to reducing defensiveness and defusing tension because you own your feelings and address what is on your mind. You might say, “I’m not comfortable with this,” or, “I hear what you’re saying.

 6. Know your triggers. Understanding your triggers allows you to prepare responses if you do become defensive. For example, you might plan to take a few deep breaths to stay calm and remain present when you are engaged in a tough conversation.

 7. Name your sensations and feelings. If you become defensive, notice bodily sensations (e.g., the tension in your shoulders, sweating, and so on). When you notice physical responses, you can pause and choose a thoughtful response instead of reacting automatically. You can also name the emotion you are feeling, prompting reflection and better self-management. You might even share what you are feeling with the other person.

 8. Assume good intentions. Some people have a hard time delivering feedback, so give them the benefit of the doubt. Imagine they have your best interests at heart and want you to be successful. View them as a caring collaborator and not as an adversary to help defuse any tension you feel.

 9. Avoid taking things personally. Feedback or criticism can feel threatening when you take it personally. Instead, frame it as a helpful conversation that highlights behaviors that can be changed or improved. Personalizing feedback makes you less resilient than when you acknowledge that external factors may have contributed to the situation.

 10. Offer yourself compassion and forgiveness. Show yourself the same kindness, care, and concern you would show a loved one and recognize that everyone is imperfect and makes mistakes. Self-compassion helps you be in a more receptive state, allowing you to better manage your reactions. Forgiving yourself can also stop unproductive cycles of rumination that can follow negative feedback. 

11. Own your behavior and take responsibility. Just admit your mistakes and apologize if needed. You are 100% responsible for your behavior—no matter what the other person says or does. A defensive communication style destroys relationships, and while it is normal to sometimes feel defensive, you do not have to respond defensively.

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