Why do people become defensive?

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Being misunderstood and responded back in an aggressive manner are big obstacles when it comes to holding honest conversations. People who become defensive easily often become emotional and lose the track of logical conversations, with the result that the important matters can never be discussed with them easily. From such people’s point of view, they think that they are being “attacked” and “targeted” by others. In such a scenario, adapting a defensive attitude can be viewed as a self coping mechanism. They appear to have their guards on always, hence the term “defensive”. Having guards on all or most of the time is quite stressful and can make one feel tired, fatigued and exhausted towards the end of the day. In addition, people have to put filters on when sharing information and discussing matters with such persons in order to prevent them from getting upset and adapting defensive stance.

In this article, we will take a look at different factors that are at play when someone adapts a defensive attitude and how to manage it.

  • Believing that people are misguided/misinformed:


One of the prime reasons behind defensiveness is the belief that most people in the society are misinformed and misguided and it’s this person’s “responsibility” to correct such people. You can view it being similar to self righteousness, which creates a very fixed mindset. The result of such fixed mindset is that anything that is seen to disrupt the boundaries, or challenge their knowledge, facts or values etc., will be met with a strong defensive response.

From the person’s point of view, getting defensive is a manifestation of strong need to be listened to and understood. While in 1:1 conversations, their communication partners may give them equal opportunity to express their thoughts, it is never enough. People are also more likely to be defensive about topics which are not mainstream, as they feel that they have to advocate for the non-mainstream media. Online media where online trolls, abuse, personal taunts, sarcastic memes and generalised statements are not rare, can also imbalance the equation. When such people come across an inflammatory posts, they become even more fixated in their mindset believing that there is no space for them to express their thoughts, and the society, community or even the world is misguided as such. The more time they spent accessing such posts creates the algorithms which will highlight such posts for these people, thereby creating the phenomenon of echo chamber. People who have a tendency to become defensive and cannot handle difference of opinions, may become further upset and intensely emotional due to the online echo chamber effect.

  • Fluctuating self esteem and perfectionism:


People who do not have great self esteem also get defensive easily. Becoming defensive could be then seen as a cover up tactic to hide their shortcomings. Such people need reliance on external factors to maintain their self worth and self esteem (similar to the fixed mindset discussed above). If they view that those external factors from which they derive support and strength from, are being criticised, they become defensive, as their self esteem is strongly connected to such external factors. Becoming defensive and aggressive is now a strategy to protect and save one’s self esteem. This creates the urge to prove their point because they want to be accepted and viewed as always right.

We all have a tendency to filter and colour the information we receive, according to what suits our beliefs, values and perception. Imagine if someone has a low self esteem, they can easily misinterpret the communication and get on their defensive.

Similarly people who have perfectionist attitude may also show increased tendency to act defensive. They do not want to be told that they have failed because of something that they have/haven’t done. The reason behind long explanations, arguments and excuses offered by such people is to convince the other person that they do not have any fault.

  • Denial of rights and opportunities:


If people feel that they are being denied their rights and not given equal opportunities, they are likely to adapt a defensive attitude. Likewise people who have experienced multiple instants of denial of rights and opportunities are probable to be defensive. For such people, adapting defensive attitude is like wearing an an armour that can shield them from being mistreated. In this regard, it can also be said that such people may also have difficulty trusting others and the system.

  • History of bullying, emotional trauma :


People who have been bullied in the past, or have experienced emotional trauma may also become increasingly defensive. For them, the defensive attitude is needed to cover their sensitivity and vulnerability, which they feel can be exploited by others. Such people often start to develop a very generalised view of the world where everyone views or sees them in a negative way. They may also view people out as very opportunistic, and now adapting defensive stance can help them stand up to the crowd to ensure that they are treated fairly. It is also interesting to note that while such people may have not actually experienced the abuse or trauma, but they may give so much value to the negative experiences of others that they start developing the view that the whole world is unfair.

  • Language difficulties:

Another reason why people may adapt defensive attitude could be related to their communication difficulties. For example, understanding sarcasm, metaphors, idioms etc., is a late developing function of language; if you hold a conversation with someone with communication limitations using sarcasm, it is very much likely that they entirely misunderstand what you are trying to say. Some people can also become stuck on “words” rather than trying to understand the meaning of the message. Such words can put them on the defensive and they may go into fight and flight mode, where the emotions dominate over the logic.

Strategies to help reduce defensive behaviours:

Let’s explore how we can reduce chances of people getting into defensive mode.

  • The sandwich technique:

While the sandwich technique when giving feedback can be confusing and is not recommended for performance based discussions, it can be useful for other discussions. Using sandwich technique, you can start with 2-3 positive things, telling them how important or valuable they are. Once you gauge that their emotions are under control and their body language is more relaxed, you can start touching the issue that you want to discuss. It is important here that due to trust and low self esteem issue, such people may quickly slide into defensive mode. Therefore use statements that appear to prevent putting blame on them i.e. ” I know that your intention might not be this, we need to think about (the matter in hand)”. Always mention the preferred outcome that you want. This is important if you are dealing with someone who has language difficulties and has been known to frequently misunderstand and misinterpret things. After the discussion, end up on a positive note again. You can encourage them to write notes so when they sit to analyse the situation, there are less chances of them incorrectly understanding you.

  • Offer reassurance:


Reassurances help the person operating in defensive mode to calm down. While it is quite an easy trap to also become defensive when faced with someone who is defensive, the downside is that it blocks the chances of open discussions, making it even harder to approach the topic next time. You can repeatedly say statements like “I understand”, “I hear you”, “I know that you will not have thought about it”, these statements help to prevent all the fuss and furry. Reaffirm your faith in them and tell them that you like them.

  • Make them feel included:


People often become isolated when they are not included or valued. This further strengthens their view of the society that the society is against them and is grossly misguided. Once you start practising an inclusive attitude, you will see that their guards start to come down. Once people feel valued, they start showing cooperative attitude as opposed to antagonistic or cold attitude, which results from non-inclusion.

  • Slow down your rate and tone of speech:


When people are being dominated by emotions, their understanding and comprehension of communication starts becoming affected. If you adapt a loud tone of voice and speak fast, it may add up to them feeling increasingly overwhelmed. This is especially important for people with language difficulties as well as people who have experienced abuse and emotional trauma. Slowing down the rate of speech can improve other person’s information processing, thereby minimising the chances of them misinterpreting things.

  • Stop when you feel that emotions are taking over:


This can be a Catch 22 as people who become easily defensive may start to see it as a cause-effect and may learn that the best way to escape a conversation is to become emotional. On the flip side, when someone has entered into a defensive phase, it is not worth putting in efforts to try to reason and argue with them. Subtly changing conversation topic, taking a short break to get water or go to the toilet etc., may help to reduce the intensity of the defensive behaviour.

If you have any other suggestions, please share them in comments section.

Written by Muhammad Wasif Haq (2004)
Islamabad, Pakistan
The page is a part of Cool Bluez