Has anyone ever told you to stop being so defensive?  That advice frustrates a lot of the colleges and clients I work with.  I mean, how can someone be giving another person bad news or “constructive” criticism and the expectation is they will not have any type of emotional reaction?  If there is not reaction, doesn’t that say something too, like perhaps they don’t care to change based on the advice given to them?

Often the word choice others use can make use more defensive.  If I asked you “How did you come to that decision” vs. “Why did you make that decision” … your ‘feelings’ about whether I am curious or judgmental changes significantly.  Why is that?

There are lots of reasons for being too defensive.  Sometimes when you get bad news or constructive criticism, you feel like you are being attacked vs. being supported.  When we feel like we are under attack, our natural instincts are to defend ourselves. To make matters worse, often we are given the news, or the criticism and we feel like we are not provided with an opportunity to fight back. 

It is important that we take the time to stand up for ourselves.  Yet, we have to be careful that we are not ‘reacting’ and letting our emotions cloud our thinking vs. ‘responding’ with curiosity and letting our logic inform our responses.  Being “too defensive” means you let your emotions cloud your thinking, and it makes it harder to get the results you want.  If you are tired of getting the input that you are too defensive and you want to take some steps toward being less defensive, here are a few tips you can consider. 

Increase Your Own Awareness

The first step in most change processes starts with awareness.  If you want to decrease how often you become defensive, you need to spend some time recognizing when you are feeling defensive.  It can be hard to recognize this in ourselves, so feedback can be the fuel that supports your new awareness campaign.

Consider asking a trusted family member, friend, or co-workers to let you know when you are reacting in a way, they feel is defensive.  This will give you a chance to increase your own awareness of when others thing you are being defensive.  Take a few moments to consider if you also feel you are behaving defensively and what the cause, or what the triggers are, of the defensive feelings might be.  This activity can help you both find out the triggers that set off these behaviors as well as start to see the signs of when others think you are being defensive. 


Authentically Represent and Express Your Values

While this might not seem like advice you have heard in terms of strategies to reduce defensiveness, hear me out.  Often, we live our lives without having a conscious awareness of what is important to us.  Not to mention the fact that our values often change as we move through life and our career.

Consider this example.  When I was young in my career and before I had a family, I valued hard work and my career above most other things in my life.  I build habits and strategies around those beliefs.  Yet, over time, I became a parent of four children.  I didn’t change the career driven behaviors, but now had a new value of viewing my family as the most important thing in my life. 

When others would indicate that I was not working as hard as I used to work, that comment butted up against my sub-conscious … and original … value of my career being the most important.  Yet, I was still working more than the normal 50-hour weeks and the change was so I could devote time to my growing family. 

When I got feedback that they perceived I was not working hard, I got very defensive.  The issue was that I didn’t really have a conscious awareness that my value system had changed and that there were some competing values in play.  I also reacted very defensively because my perception was different than theirs.  I felt I was working hard.  They were comparing my prior activity to my current activity. 

In the end, the way that I was able to reduce getting defensive was to realize that I DID actually work less than before and that was just fine by me.  My values had changed.  They did have a perspective that was accurate – I was working less than before.  However, that did not mean I was just working less.


Outer Critic or Outer Coach

While it is often hard to hear negative things about our performance or how we are showing up in the world, remember that sometimes the person that is providing you feedback actually is coming from a good place.  They are not giving you feedback to be mean or cruel.  Remember too that they are taking a risk in giving you feedback that you might not want to hear. 

If someone you know cares for you or your career provides you feedback that is hard to hear, it might have been hard to give as well.  Maybe they are your best coach, not your worst critic.  Those that care for us often expect more from us than we might even expect from ourselves.  If we can reframe the feedback in this way, we might be able to respond appropriately vs. reacting defensively. 


Pause Before Reacting to Allow Time to Respond

The simplest step you can take to avoid being too defensive is to avoid reacting in the moment that the feedback occurs.  Often that is our initial gut reaction and we are reacting based on default behavior.  If you are trying to respond more and react less, then you can try taking a few deep breaths and then consider if you want to respond or not. 


Get Your Stress Levels Under Control

I don’t know about you, but I am not my best self when I am stressed out.  I am often my worst self.  So, if I get feedback indicating I am not doing something well, chances are it might actually be true.  Or, if it is not true then my attitude itself might be less than stellar.

With all of that being said, we are all more likely to react ore defensively when we are stressed.  If you take a few steps back to address the general level of stress in your life, you will likely find that you are just naturally less defensive … and probably a bit happier too.  Bonus. 

Fine Tune Your Listening Skills

More often than not, the cause of our defensive reaction is often just a result of a miscommunication or misunderstanding.  If you make efforts to be a more active listener, you can approach more conversations with a posture of curiosity vs. judgement.  Consider that if you are curious you will be less likely to be defensive.  Also, others mimic our feeling and behaviors unconsciously.  So, if you are coming from a place of judgement, it is likely they may be as well.  Instead, consider coming from a curious posture – you will most likely be less defensive over time and you will get less judgmental feedback from others. 

It’s All About the “I” Statements

One of the tips I learned from a book called Crucial Conversations was to use “I” statements.  The good news is that I just didn’t read about it, I use the technique as well.  It might seem a bit cliché, but when you use “I” statements … focusing on how you feel vs what others did … you will naturally come off as less defensive.  The other benefit of this type of statement is that it helps the other person also be less likely to get defensive. 

RESOURCE NOTE: If you don’t have time to read the entire book try out Read It For Me for a great summary of the key concepts of the book. 

Stop Interrupting Others

Not only is it more polite, but you get the added benefit of seeming less defensive just by not interruption others.  You also seem like a more active listener.  It can be hard to not interrupt.  If you are in a large meeting with many people in it and you really want to get your point across – you might feel that is your only option.  It is also hard to sit and listen to someone say something you don’t believe is true.  However, if you let the other person conclude their comments, you will have a better idea of how to respond to them.  Also, giving them the time to complete their idea will also give you time to collect your thoughts and respond with a calm demeaner and clear message.

There are No Winners in Miscommunication

While it might be hard to believe, you don’t have to win in every conversation, argument, or discussion.  Sometimes conversations are just to exchange information.  Once you let go of you innate competitive nature and the need to get in the last word, you will find that you are naturally less defensive and more confident.

Practical Steps to Success

You can read books and blog posts until you are blue in the face, but they are not going to do anything about you being defensive.  You have to decide to take action if you want to see change.  Here are three possible practical action steps you can take to help you reduce your defensiveness.

Make a List of Problems and Solutions

Make a list of all the things that are stressing you out.  Then, you can create an action or solution for each of those stressors to help reduce your overall stress load.  This can help reduce your stress and therefore help reduce your defensiveness naturally.

Make a List of What Matters

Not everything is important.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that is true, but it is.  Consider making a list of what really matters to you the most in life.  What are your true, deep core values and in what priority would you list them?  This can help you feel less defensive when people bring up issues that you no longer feel are as important.  It also helps you know what matters to you and that can naturally reduce your defensive reactions.

Improve Your Listening Skills

If you think your largest Achilles heel is that you are just not a great active listen yet, then research-active listening skills and learn how you can improve.  The book Active Listening Techniques: 30 Practical Tools to Hone Your Communication Skills can help you or you can just google it.  There are great free resources online that will help you improve your listening skills.  This can help you to avoid the misunderstandings that can lead to defensiveness. 

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