Ways to Manage Defensive Behavior

Managing defensive behavior is critical in forming positive relationships with others.

You’re an idiot. To be clear, I’m not talking to you, but did reading that spark any sharp emotions? This judgment, “You’re an idiot” is something that people are thinking dozens of times a day to people all around them. Employees, supervisors, friends, family members, random strangers, etc. Now, we don’t typically say the words, “You’re an idiot,” but we use polite proxies like, “How could you possibly…?!” or “I don’t know why anyone would…” or “I don’t understand how you thought that was the right choice.” or “It’s common sense…” All of these phrases have the veneer of curiosity, but they’re not curious. The subtext of these phrases is clear, “You’re an idiot.” Going back to the emotions that you may have had at the top of this article, I’m going to guess that those emotions lead to some sort of defensive reaction. Notice that the following statement was immediately clarifying and rectifying? That defensive reaction, if not quickly resolved, would reduce your brain’s willingness and ability to learn. Learning to manage defensive behavior is a critical tool in the human interaction toolbox.

What is defensive behavior?

What is defensive behavior? We all understand the concept, but most people cannot recognize it when they see or experience it. The main reason is that different people exhibit defensive behavior differently. Moreover, defensive behavior looks different in different situations. Before attempting to manage defensive behavior, it is important that we avoid the first pitfall of defensive behavior: misattribution. In the animal kingdom, oftentimes offensive behavior and defensive behavior look precisely the same. Take a rattlesnake for instance. A rattlesnake will strike for two reasons. The first reason is if someone or something large encroaches upon its territory and doesn’t heed its warning (rattle), it will strike out to protect itself—defensive behavior. The second reason is if there is a delicious-looking rodent wandering by, it will strike out to feed itself—offensive behavior. The most interesting thing is that the behaviors appear to be identical. Similar is the situation with the people around us. They may be exhibiting defensive behavior, but we interpret that behavior as offensive or an attack, in which case, we react defensively, often judging their behavior as irrational (“you’re an idiot”).

The most common physiological signs and symptoms of defensive behavior are elevated heart rate, flushed skin, pupil dilation, perspiration, changes in vocal tone, changes in vocal volume, clenched jaw, clenched fist, trouble finding words, sudden silence, shutting down, leaving the room, justification of behavior, an exhibition of red herring arguments, etc. When you see these signs and symptoms, do your best not to perceive them as an attack but as somewhat defensive behavior. Remembering that people get defensive when they don’t feel safe.

Managing defensive behavior

Managing defensive behavior is critical to the success of anyone in a relationship with another person. Whether it is a hierarchical or familial relationship, understanding these concepts improves upon the efficacy of your communication and influence. If your ultimate goal is to correct behavior or communicate an issue, upon recognizing the signs and symptoms of defense, your next step should be to create and reinforce physical and psychological safety. Your goal is not to attack, and if your behavior is being misinterpreted as an attack, apologize for that impact and clarify what your goals truly are. When someone is in a state of defensiveness, they are unlikely to process your critiques in a productive way. Now, this process may lead you to the acknowledgment that your true goal is for them to acknowledge their flaws, in which case – your goals will likely be the cause of the defensiveness. If this is true, expecting them not to get defensive is an unreasonable expectation – an expectation that will more than likely lead to additional upset and frustration.

Just as there are physiological signs and symptoms to recognize that the person you are communicating with is exhibiting defensiveness, there are simple behaviors that you can do to alleviate the feeling of being attacked. You can modify your tone of voice. If someone’s tone or volume is elevating, the temptation is to match or exceed it to get your point across. This likely won’t help. Lower your tone and lower the volume of your voice; you can even slow the cadence of your voice. If you are in a relationship where physical contact is acceptable, make physical contact. This can be a hand on a shoulder or on a hand. This physical connectivity increases oxytocin in their brain – Oxytocin is responsible for connectedness, trust, and forming bonds. One of the most useful things you can do is stop trying to win – and listen to the other person. Oftentimes people get defensive because they do not feel heard. Listen. Listen to them with an ear to understand where they are coming from. This simple change in how you show up, may lower their defensiveness and increase the likelihood of the desired outcome.

Addressing defensive behavior

Addressing defensive behavior is difficult; there is no way around it, but your ability to recognize both the physical manifestation and the root of defensive behavior will leave you in the top echelon of communicators. Then, your ability to modify YOUR behavior in such a way that reduces defensiveness and creates safety will make you more effective in commenting on or correcting THEIR behavior. Just like with most leadership situations, the communication tool you must use is not a tool of compliance; to apply to them to get them to change. Instead, the communication tool you must use is most effective for you and your interactions with them. Assigning them to blame for their defensiveness is akin to blaming someone for laughing when we tickle them. More often than not, defensive behavior is a reaction based in the most basic animal functions: protect and survive. We tend not to think deeply or creatively when survival is at stake. Managing defensive behavior is infinitely easier and more effective if they’re no longer defensive.