Defensiveness Is Killing Your Relationships – How To Recognize It and What To Do About It

Photo by Jaye Wagner on Unsplash

Your defensiveness is killing your relationships and you don’t even realize it.

What? Me being defensive? I’m not defensive! YOU’RE the one that’s always defensive!

That’s a classic defensive response to a piece of feedback. Throw up a wall, rebut the statement, and accuse the other person of the same complaint. The sad thing is many of us react defensively without even thinking about it. In her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine points out that we think other people’s bad behavior toward us is intentional, but we dismiss our own bad behavior as inadvertent, a mistake, or unavoidable due to circumstances out of our control. This allows us to feel morally superior to the other person while simultaneously protecting our ego from the possibility that we may actually be incompetent or acting like a jerk.

The Causes of Defensiveness

People react defensively because they anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment, not usually because they’re just wanting to be difficult. Unfortunately, defensive behavior creates a reciprocal cycle. One party acts defensively, which causes the other party to respond defensively, which in turn causes the first party to raise their defenses even higher, and so on and so on. Defensive behavior can be a complex and murky issue. For many people, their behavioral patterns stem from emotional, mental, or personality issues/tendencies developed over the course of their lifetimes (feelings of abandonment, inferiority, low self-esteem, narcissism, etc.).

Beyond the mental and emotional factors, there are types of behaviors that cause people to respond defensively. Defensive communication expert Jack Gibbs outlines six behavioral categories that create defensive responses in people:

  1. Dogmatism – Black and white, I’m right and you’re wrong, either/or, and other kinds of all or nothing thinking and communication cause people to react defensively.
  2. Lack of accountability – Shifting blame, making excuses, and rationalizing behavior leads people to raise their defense levels.
  3. Controlling/Manipulative – Using all sorts of behaviors to control or manipulate people will lead to defensive behavior. No one likes to feel like they are being used by someone else.
  4. Guarded/Withholding Information – When people feel like they are being left in the dark or purposely excluded from having information they should know, they are threatened and will react defensively.
  5. Superiority – Want someone to be defensive? Then act like you’re better than him/her, lord your power, knowledge, or position over them and see how they respond.
  6. Critical – A constant focus on catching people doing something wrong, rather than right, creates a climate of defensiveness.

How to Deal With Your and Other People’s Defensive Behavior

Dealing with defensive behavior can be complex and exhausting because it’s hard to separate a person from their behavior or the situation. And as mentioned earlier, some people’s defensiveness is so deeply rooted in their behavioral patterns that there is little realistic chance they will permanently change. However, there are some helpful strategies we can use to deal with our own defensiveness and that of others:

  • Re-frame the behavior – Rather than label a person’s defensive behavior as bad, understand it for what it is – defensive. Once you understand it as defensive, then you can explore why the person is feeling threatened and work to address the threat(s). One of the reasons we get so frustrated with defensive people is we try to deal with the behavior without addressing the threat that is causing the behavior.
  • Reduce the danger – Once you’ve identified the threat(s) causing the defensive behavior, work to reduce the perceived danger. Be moderate in your tone, even-tempered, empathize with their concerns, be respectful, and respond non-defensively to avoid escalating tensions.
  • Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence – Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Through self-improvement, counseling, training, or mentoring, explore the causes of your defensive behavior. What are the triggers that make you feel threatened? Having a better understanding of yourself will not only help you regulate your own behavior, it will give you better insight into the behavior of others as well.
  • Replace negative feedback with questions or offers to help – If you have to regularly deal with someone who reacts defensively, you’ve probably noticed that the slightest bit of negative feedback sets them off. Try replacing the negative feedback with a question or an offer to help. For example, instead of saying “Sally, you made a mistake on this report,” rephrase it by saying “Sally, I’m not sure I understand this section on the report. Could you help me figure it out?” Remember, a person acts defensively because he/she perceives a threat. Try to make the situation non-threatening.
  • Move from dogmatism to openness – The less people feel boxed in to either/or, yes/no, right/wrong choices, the less threatening the situation. Of course there are times where things need to be done a specific way, but if you approach the situation with a spirit and attitude of openness rather than “my way or the highway,” you’ll get a more open response.
  • Treat people as equals – Approach other people in a collaborative manner, looking for ways to help them win in the situation. Take time to identify and recognize their needs, discover what’s important to them, and validate their concerns.

Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. The opposite of defensiveness, openness, creates an atmosphere of freedom, growth, respect and trust. Identifying the root of defensiveness in our relationships, and working toward addressing and removing those issues, will help improve the overall quality of our relationships and the productivity of our teams and organizations.

85 Comments on “Defensiveness Is Killing Your Relationships – How To Recognize It and What To Do About It

      • Hello Randy, I’m curious, what kind of counseling does one refer to in an effort to combat defensiveness? Is that considered cogitative behavior? Personality disorder?

      • Hi Tracy,

        I’m not really sure, but I imagine there would be some online resources that could help you figure that out.

        Take care,


    • I got a lot of use from your article…Thank you for writing it!. Sometimes I have thought I might be too defensive…now I understand myself even better. Great analysis Sir!

      • I have been told I am too defensive. And I admit it is true. This taxic habit is pushing people away. I need help.

    • I absolutely love the article and relate to it personally. Can you please email the article to me?
      I want to print it from my email on my phone and read it every day. Thank you

    • Going through this right now.. its so hard to handle. And cope with.. I just take the blame ,but the more you yell for them to hear you the more of the manipulation rises and get you railed and anger in yourself..

      • Thank you very much for this article.
        It highlights so much and I’ve really been able to reflect on my own behaviour, and I’m hoping excepting I have been a jerk and becoming more emotionally awear will change things for the better.

      • Thanks for your comments Robert. It takes personal courage to examine our own behaviors, identify what needs improvement, and committing to a course of action. Good on you!


  1. Great article..
    (Addressing the comment privately rather than publicly, I think helps reducing Defensiveness)

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  4. Thank you so much for this great insight into defensiveness! My question is what if you just tell the person think using “I” statements eg., “I feel you don’t love me anymore” and that turns into defense that they hand up the phone. They feel it’s something that they didn’t do right–again! It’s gotten to the point where I cannot express myself to my bf without his getting defensive. I tried to ask him to look at my emotions behind the words, and I encourage him to ask himself what is it that I am really sing of him or need from him. This still doesn’t work and we fight all the time because of ” how I say things” which are really not threatening at all. It’s just requiring him to maybe make some change in the relationship and he does like that..he doesn’t feel loved he says, even though I travel across the world and leave my family to spend lots of time with him and I’m always trying to makes things work and communicate and hold it together when he is slipping away. That’s my feeling. What are your thoughts?

    • Hello Maria. It takes a lot of courage on your part to be so authentic – thank you.

      If at all possible, I would suggest you connect with a professional counselor or therapist to help you explore this further. I think the info I shared in the article is a good starting point but it’s not a replacement for professional guidance.

      As I mentioned in the article, people react defensively because they perceive they are threatened in some way. What could be threatening to your boyfriend? If you’re able to pinpoint that particular issue, it would allow you (and him) to take action to address the perceived threat.

      Best wishes to you,


      • I think it’s something called ego, and possibly even his fear of acknowledging truth. I cannot be certain though.

    • Maria, you stated that your boyfriend gets defensive even when you use I statements. If you look at the example you provided, “I feel you don’t love me anymore…” you’ve really made a “you” statement disguised as an I statement. A true I statement keeps ALL of “it” with you. It being feelings and behaviors, etc. I would have suggested a statement like “I don’t feel loved any more.” This way, you are not claiming any bad behavior on his part. Only just what you are feeling. In this way you can now have a discussion about what EITHER/BOTH of you can do to address this feeling.
      I recognize that this reply is 3 years too late.

      • Even if you use careful “I statements” with a defensive person, it won’t help. There is also no way to describe the behavior the other person is doing that bothers us without using the word “you”… Sure you can stick with just describing your feelings, but you won’t get anywhere. “I feel unloved”… “I feel sad”…. well, when do you feel that way?

        “I feel sad when you laugh at my artwork”…
        “It made me feel embarrassed when you rolled your eyes at me in front of my friends”…
        “When you don’t respond to my phone calls, it makes me feel scared and alone”

        A defensive person might even through this all back in our faces for using the word “you” in trying to communicate the context of the situation. Defensive people love to pick on us for our word choices, because it’s a great distraction from their own behaviors.

  5. I’m sorry, but it is so exhausting walking on eggshells with defensive people. They are overly sensitive, sometimes for no real reason at all but an overly inflated ego, not humble enough to take constructive criticism, or maybe even a perceived threat that may be only in their head, to the point where they accuse you of thinking and saying things you never even thought or said. Who wants to spend a lifetime walking on eggshells to avoid conflict, but suffer internally at the hands of an emotionally immature person who cannot handle any form of “perceived criticism.” Are you kidding me?!!?

    • Hi Jessie, thanks for adding to the discussion.

      I agree that it can be emotionally draining to deal with defensive people. If we can find out what triggers their defensiveness then we can better understand how to relate to them in more positive ways.

      Take care,


      • What if the trigger Is truth about themselves that they are not willing to admit because it wil all for change, or that they may not be seen in a positive light. So, they twist and turn the truth saying you said something, or were thinking something you never were. Since when did these simple become mind readers ? The defensive one is fine as long as you give them praise and stroke their ego, but as soon as issues become real and call for compromise or change, they shut down, tune you out, or even fall asleep. Even saying, baby.. There is something that is bothering me that we need to discuss… That doesn’t work either! These people are just too emotionally immature to handle the truth. Instead of making people studder over their words in attempts not to offend, they themselves just need to understand the human emotion behind what Is being said and suck it up m, acknowledge they play a role in their as well, and ask themselves, What can I do to make the situation better, instead of running away. Now is not the time to shut down and go hide in a closet with your teddy bear! People will only agree to studder over their words and walk on eggshells for so long !

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  7. This Is Quite Good Ihave Been Defensive All Along And Ididnt Know Why Thanks For Your Insights.

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  11. I am seeing a man we shall call Andy and he gets very defensive when I ask where he works or lives or his daughters name. He changes his character immediately and goes cold towards me and tells me I am being disrespectful by asking and it’s none of my business. ., he then goes on to say I am rude is asking personal questions because it’s disrespectful of me to nosey into his life and him discussing this with me is wrong on my part and I have no business knowing. I feel abused in all of this. Iv walked away. . PS he then goes on to say his daughter and grand kids would be disappointed to know that he was discussing them behind his back. . What is going on here. …. . I don’t even know this man’s surname after 7 months. . He’s married but separated. . . He gets angry at me. .

    • Rachel – Secrecy and defensiveness are huge red flags. It sounds as though he may only want this relationship on his terms, and if that’s true, I think it should cause you to question the health and value of the relationship.

      Best regards,


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  13. He is always defensive. I approach as a question most is the time. trying to understand. Most of these questions r a results of his me me actions.

  14. I have been in a relationship for eight years which has just ended. I am a very open person emotionally l wear my heart on my sleeve and l am not worried about being wrong and saying sorry. I can be defensive at times and very frustrated especially with my ex as he was so righteous and always had to be right all the time. He would never take responsibility for anything. All the rows were “my fault” if l disagreed with him then l was negative towards him. He took it as an affront believing that l never agreed with him which was not the case. I was so exhausted with his defensive angry retort and trying to get my point across that our relationship became so toxic. I could feel the distance between us growing. I knew there was no way back. I felt sad because l felt we did have a lot in common really. But my nature is quite strong and it made him feel threatened l think. I believe he felt l became his persecuted in the end. Tell you the truth because he was always on his moral high ground maintaining that position of he is right l am wrong l did go all out to challenge him and make him feel as l did. But really that was the wrong thing to do but l was exhausted by never being listened to. So the relationship is now dead and buried as l know that he will never change. He bears a grudge like you cannot believe, the resentment bitterness well he must be dying inside. So l felt defeated by it all and he walked out. I have seen him since but nothing much changed so l have told him l want no more contact with him as l need to get on with my life. But l am sad as l do have good memories too. Put it all down to experience and have some alone time and see what life brings me.

    • Hi Sandy,

      I appreciate your courage in sharing this experience and I’m sure other readers will benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.

      When relationships end because of difficult circumstances, I think it’s important to consider the role of forgiveness. It can be cathartic to forgive yourself and the other person for doing or not doing things that contributed to the downfall. It’s been said that “forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past.” We can’t change what has happened, but we can learn from it and move forward in a positive way, applying the lessons we’ve learned.

      Take care,


      • Thank you so much for sharing Sandy and thank you Randy for your guidance. I too am in a 7 going 8 yr relationship and I can tell you I’ve been experiencing a very similar thing. Its not easy. I have tried to show love and patience but its hurtful because I keep telling myself for the length of time we are together we should be closer but I have learnt that someone’s past experience with other relationships and how they were brought up by their parents can affect them dramatically for the rest of their lives especially if they are not willing to heal or acknowledge what has happened and what is going on. I am looking to end the relationship because I believe I deserve better and I need to find myself again and heal too. I prayer and hope that I would have the opportunity to be with someone who I can grow with and feel free again to be truly me and most of all experience love in its purity. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one going through this but am glad I can identify with someone who has been there and know that there is hope after the storm..
        Thanks again.

  15. Hi..I left a comment when I first found this site June 24th. I don’t think it was ever posted. It would not take my email address which is dr_mack@ (yahoo). com……it waited to use a email address I used a few years back when I published a couple of blog post on WordPress. I really hope this post get published because I have been to share my testimony on how i got my lover back …. this is a miracle. So much is going on right now…..but mostly I want say i am so happy. Dr Mack was a great helper when i my Husband broke apart from me but he later came back after i used the service of Dr Mack.

  16. I struggle at times being Defensive oit of no where if my wife starts questioning me. I don’t have this behavior with anyone else just my spouse. I may go 6 months then Bam something reers its ugly head and I know that its frustrating because I can look back afterwards and question myself whyyyyy did I do that. So frustrating for me and I know way more for her :sigh:

    • Hi Randy,

      I can relate. It’s easier to hurt those we love the most, probably because we feel the most secure with them and don’t worry about them turning their back on us.

      One question to ask yourself: Do you believe that your wife truly wants the best for you? You probably do. If that’s the case, then keep reminding yourself that whenever she’s questioning you about something, despite how you’re perceiving it, she truly wants the best for you and has good motives.

      It’s a mental discipline that we can cultivate and it will help lower defensiveness in your relationship.

      Take care,


      • I’m 100% certain she only wants the best for me. Itd be crazy to even begin to think the one person I trust most in the world would want anything but the best for me.I know its a behavior that has been planted in me for some time and I have to really work hard to keep the correct perception of things relating to her intentions. When it happens it seems like very fast impulsive response that’s gets away from me and its too late to turn back. Thank you for your reply I will put more work into letting things get defensive. Hopefully the frequency will become less and less until its gone for good. I do not want to lose my Wife over my own self.

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  18. I am using this for my Social Skills classes that I teach. I like the simple no nonsense approach. It’s really a hard thing to put into practice. It’s an even harder thing to deal with in another human being.

  19. WOW! I read this because I was looking for validation for something between my husband and I. However, I am guilty of a couple of those behaviors. I have a feeling your article will be something I reflect back on. Thank you.

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  21. This really helped me. I tend to be defensive and always trying to justify myself even when it’s not necessary. Always trying to explain to people and sometimes giving too much information that’s not necessary.

    • Hi Jan. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you found the article helpful. I wish you the best.


  22. I have mostly had a very bad experience with people in general in regard to trust issues..But mostly because of my own fault…My expectation that I hold onto to stuff that people tell me..My expectation that they wouldn’t change ends hurting me more often than not…
    I had closed myself off for quite sometime before I had let someone in…and back then I let myself feel vulnerable because I realized it wasn’t fair for someone else..if I were to respond based on what I experienced in my past..
    Only to be let down way more than that what had every happened before…After almost two years now..I’ve been seeing someone now for three months now..Yet the speed with which our relationship progressed scares me…From being crazy about the other and realizing that they are everything one could ever want, to stuff going downhill..I tried to calm myself and realise that its normal…That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us..But these days I feel even more disconnected..We used to talk stuff out before..Very calmly..share everything..but it doesn’t happen now..I am not someone who pries on stuff…My intuition tells me that he keeps stuff from me…But i fear if it is just the experience of my past that holds me back..

  23. Hi,
    My own family are highly critical of me, and my parents were very defensive if one ever challenged them. I learned how their criticisms made me feel and as a result I try not to be so confrontational, instead using the I feel statements, or focussing on problem in behaviour rather than labelling people as bad or failures. I have to say I find it hard to articulate my feelings until they get overwhelming as feelings were never discussed in our home.
    I do occasionally find it hard to be direct when it is needed though, with the sort of person who does not respond well to encouragement, or training. I still hate direct confrontation even when the person is clearly either breaking the law or being rude to me.
    On returning home to my parents home later in life, their continued criticism felt like a huge shock, as I was no longer used to it. I reacted by becoming rather withdrawn and quiet. I then started work in a new job, in a ‘Family owned’ retail company where such micro-managing and fault finding was endemic. My quietness was taken as being unenthusiastic about the company, and certain things taken out of context were criticised. I became very defensive and handled a meeting with my manager badly. The issues were not satisfactory resolved, and I think they ended up just falling back on some minor punishment as I stood my ground. I tried to explain I was only doing what I had been told to do, and was working hard to do my job, but had been misunderstood. I stayed calm and professional but found it hard to articulate my feelings as I was so upset at this accusation. It stirred very strong feelings of unfairness and anger in me. Nothing more was said or done but the person who had made the original comments was later found to be causing trouble with other staff and had now left.
    I am working on my defensiveness, but since no-one in the company, nor the family, have apologised, I am still carrying the hurt around with me, and am more easily triggered than I would like. How can I work to reduce this state of general alertness and stop over-reacting? Or should I just call it a day and find a company that is less over-bearing and critical? I have to say that new people coming in are introducing new management techniques, and they focus on self-assessment and self-reporting – still waiting to see if this makes a difference. Please help as it is exhausting constantly trying to forgive and forget whilst expecting the axe to fall from on high.

    • Hello Sara,

      I apologize for just now responding to your comment.

      You seem self-aware in how these situations affect you emotionally and the type of responses they can provoke.

      It may be helpful to remember that you can choose to forgive and move forward whether or not anyone in your company’s leadership apologizes. Apologizing is incumbent upon someone else taking action; forgiving is completely under your control. If you enjoy where you work, the people you work with, and feel positive about the changes being made, then I encourage you to consider forgiving and letting go of hurt feelings from the past. Harboring hurt feelings by choosing not to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. You’re only hurting yourself.

      I hope that’s helpful. Best wishes to you.


  24. My parter is extremely defensive. It’s killing me and our relationship. I know everyone can be a little bit, but this is too much. I can’t talk about things that matter without her thinking I’m attacking her and her blood just starts to boil. It’s like the defensiveness is a monster inside that she can’t suppress. You just can’t tell a defensive person they are defensive! They just get defensive.. and so it spirals.. Into terrible and pointless arguments. Someone please help me.. Is it possible to overcome.. is it genetic? Has there been scientific studies done on this? I’m so lost because I love her so much but this is ruining everything…

    • Hello Will,

      Your comments clearly convey the pain and turmoil this is causing in the relationship. Have you tried applying some of the concepts I mentioned in the article. If so, how has that worked?

      I would also suggest trying different ways of talking to your partner about both of you receiving some counseling. I could imagine raising this topic could cause her to be defensive. You can combat that by keeping the focus on yourself (e.g., “I’d like for us to get counseling because I think I could benefit from it.”) and not her.

      Best to you,


      • Yes I have tried everything. Doesn’t matter how I say things. It’s not even when’s she’s done anything wrong it just simple questions. Like ‘would you be open to moving to another town or city one day’. Obviously it triggers something. But why get defensive? I even tried to outline how defensiveness is basically an unconscious habit, and once we realise its happening we can try to unlearn it.. as I have tried to do, but this caused the same spiral.. Has there been studies done on this? Because quite simply you cannot tell a defensive person they are defensive, and hence they will never ever change. And to just ‘manage’ it is not feasible, in my opinion, if they can’t even see it at all..

      • A person’s personality influences how they react in situations where defensiveness may be provoked. I wonder if you’ve asked about how you might phrase or position things in such a way that they will be received more positively?

        At the end of the day, we can’t change anyone else. That person has to change themself, so in the absence of that, we can only focus on how we choose to respond.


    • I’m in the same boat my boyfriend said don’t ask him any questions? We are long distance never met in person?

  25. I have tried this approach in this article in my marriage for almost 20 years and it has left me extremely unhappy, feeling like I always have to walk on eggshells around my wife, and feeling like I can’t be myself. I’ve recently come to feel that the only way to deal with an overly defensive person is to demand they change or leave the relationship. Unfortunately it probably means I will leave. Defensiveness indicates stunted emotional development. Tip toeing around it just enables the behavior. I mean, this is good advice if it’s about dealing with a coworker or someone you have to be around, but if it’s a marriage, I would advise someone to demand the person change, or work on changing, or leave.

    • Hello Henry,

      Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing your personal experience; undoubtedly it’s a trying and difficult situation and I wish you the best.

      I think we agree on a fundamental truth: one person can’t change another. We can cajole, demand, plead, or beg for a person to change, but at the end of the day, that person has to make their own choice. The most we can do is to change ourselves. Many times that does the trick in difficult relationships. One person focuses on changing his/her behavior, and in turn it influences the other person to change as well. But it doesn’t always happen, and in those cases I think you’re right…you have to decide whether to abandon the relationship or try other strategies.

      Best wishes to you,


  26. You have told in this how our comments triggers defensive “reaction” in someone.. but, not eloborated on how to make a person who truly is the example of defensive behaviour that he or she truly possess a very defensive retorting attitude..

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  29. I am going through a book called, “Soul Care” and this article helped me understand a little more clearly why some of my defensive behaviors were connected to my childhood. A person has to be able to heal from the inside out & nobody else can figure out how to do that for you. Thank you 💜

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  31. Hello All, I am experiencing the same thing with my significant other. Mind you, I have gotten where I question every thing I do, say, and even think at times because like Henry, I am getting to a point where I am feeling it is hopeless. I too love her a great deal but it appears I am the only one willing to take a look inward and evaluate my own behavior(s). I have never met a person who, if you ask them about something they did or said (that quite honestly seems to had been said or done with the intent to punish or hurt the other) that gets even madder for being asked to clarify. The things are so trivial and as far from being critical as they can get at times; but the result of the reaction makes them critical. I am like Henry at this point, I may just have to cut my losses and move on, as much as I love her. Hopefully, there are no red flags with the things I am saying. If so, please let me know as I do understand sometimes you cannot see the forest because of the trees.

  32. I am having issues at work that made me Google this article, and in this case, I am the person who has been deemed defensive. I have only been at the job for 4 months, and early on in my new role (3 weeks in), I made a mistake with something having been left with the responsibility whilst other staff were overseas for a conference. As a response, I admitted my part in the mistake and agreed to certain procedures to undertake to avoid doing it again. However, that mistake has since shaped how others in the workplace communicate with me.

    I feel that I am left out of many discussions and meetings, and the information that stems from them doesn’t tend to make it’s way to me in order for me to do my job in the best way possible. In my one-on-ones with the supervisor I said I would appreciate more communication and collaboration in the future, however I feel that hasn’t been taken on board.

    For instance, I was tasked to arrange a function for the visiting CEO including the venue, catering and invitations. It was only after days of working on these and seeking final sign-offs that I was informed that they had changed the times. I was disppointed that I wasn’t told this, and as a result told that my behaviour was defensive and inappropriate. I didn’t raise my voice or abuse them, I just simply said “oh, I wish I was told this” and went back to my desk to change the details.

    And this is how I have dealt with the numerous occasions it has happened since.

    My most recent one-on-one brought up that they felt that I am not taking on feedback and not making the most of my role, despite them noting that my work and what I am tasked with is of excellent standard. I have been told to cut the defensive behaviours and be more proactive, or consider my position. I regularly ask if I can help or do more for them, but am told no, so I am not sure how I can be more proactive. At the same meeting, I was also told that my colleagues don’t trust me because of the mistake earlier on. In trying to respond to this by stating that the quality of my work isn’t an issue and I am trying to prove I am trustworthy through this, I was again seen as being defensive. After that I chose not to speak at the meeting. I was sent a follow up email telling me I should think my response over during this weekend.

    I am really not sure how to come back from this. I don’t feel I am being defensive, although I am frustrated that I am viewed through the lens of one mistake. Ultimately I just want to do my job well and correctly. I also want to feel included as part of a team, which I don’t feel right now. I find that the focus is on criticism rather than feedback, and that my own feedback to them on what I would like to move forward isn’t heeded.

    At this point, I am not sure whether there is anything I can do to improve the situation, and feel like I may have to write the situation off and look for a new job.

    • Thank you for sharing your situation. I apologize it has taken me longer than usual to respond.

      It sounds as though there are several dynamics at play: lack of trust, perceived defensiveness, lack of communication, and unclear expectations.

      One strategy to pursue is to ask for specific, behavioral actions of what a good job looks like. What does being proactive look like? What are the specific defensive behaviors your colleagues are noticing? It’s hard for you to change your behavior if you aren’t clear on what “good” looks like.

      Best of luck and let me know how it goes.


      • Randy, while I really appreciate this article, I’m concerned that making so much effort to help the person with the defensive responses be less defensive, seems overly catering and on the borderline of co-dependant. Would you elaborate on the differences? I am a recovering co dependant person and I think I sometimes go to the far end of that opposite with my partner. He is the defensive person. While I see the value of these actions as putting out the fire of defensiveness, isn’t that the job of the individual, not the partner?

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  34. I loved this! I am very defensive and I know its causing problems in my relationship and it’s because I feel our discussions are 1 sided. I’m suppose to understand his side yet my side is never validated. It totally is causing strain.

    • Hi Nikki,

      I’m glad you found the article helpful and I hope it allows you to improve the quality of your relationships. Keep working at it!


  35. Thanks for this. Question: my partner often needs to vent, and often I feel very much that it is an attack and it triggers my defensiveness. We have worked on it and I am better than before at staying quiet and listening and letting her speak – but still I fall back on defaults sometimes. It drives us both crazy and is ruining our relationship. But on top of that – when can I speak? I feel that I cannot correct points at the time because it’s defensive, and I can’t bring it up later because it reignites and still is accused as defensive. The a vicious circle happens where I feel voiceless, and then I just seem to be “me too”-Ing. Any guidance is appreciated.

    • Hello JH,

      I can relate to the challenge. Sometimes it can be a fine line between listening non-judgmentally (and not reacting defensively), and getting a word in edgewise.

      I’ve been married for nearly 32 years, and something my wife and I have gotten in the habit of doing is saying something like “I just need to vent,” which means “just listen to me and acknowledge my feelings.” Sometimes the person listening needs to clarify what the speaker wants/needs – “So you just need me to listen, and not problem-solve, correct?”

      If you set those expectations up front, then it can diffuse the need to correct, debate, or argue.

      I hope that’s helpful.


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  37. Thank you – printing and taking with us to further discuss this weekend, we are near a breaking point.

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