10 Tips for Defusing Defensiveness

It is not uncommon as we interact with others for individuals to become emotional or defensive in the moment. When this occurs you must remember that their reaction says more about them than it does about you. Why? Because their feelings or reaction were created by them. An individual’s emotional response originates in the negative interpretation or judgment that they are assigning to whatever you are either saying or doing.

For example, have you ever become frustrated with someone who has promised to provide you something that you need by a certain deadline and they frequently fail to deliver? It is almost as if your frustration rubs off on them, and they become defensive the moment that you check the status of your request. Such a situation is common in both our professional and personal lives.

When this occurs, it is important to remember two principles in order to manage a person’s emotional response. First, negative or “hot” emotion is the symbol of a violated value. And second, emotion is the mask of meaning.

Emotion is the symbol of a violated value

When we talk about emotion being the symbol of a violated value, we are talking about what is important to the other person. We experience an individual’s emotional reaction as an outward expression of their negative interpretation of the situation. Unfortunately, the person’s negative emotion masks the thinking that created their feelings. You may think that you know why a person is upset, but you really must admit that you only see or experience their emotional expression, and you have no idea or understanding of the thinking that created it.

Here are some tips for effectively managing an individual’s emotional reaction and defusing their defensiveness in the moment.

1.     Notice Behavior. Often we are so involved in the content of the conversation that we fail to notice what is happening. Take notice what is happening with an individual in the moment. You might ask yourself these questions: “What are they doing with their hands? Is their voice increasing in volume? Are they beginning to turn red? What’s happening with their eyes? Could their glare melt plate steel? Are they becoming more forceful or direct?” Pay attention to signals like this so you can manage the dynamics before the conversation goes awry. Be both a participant and an observer in conversation.

2.     Remain Calm. If you begin to match the other person’s emotional intensity during the conversation, you will only escalate the other person’s feelings or emotional state. You must remain calm when the heat gets turned up. This will enable you to think and reason when the other person’s rationality has left through the back door. Control your emotional response.

3.     Use a reflecting statement. A reflecting statement allows the other person to see themselves through your eyes. It also signals their brain that you are making an attempt to understand them. A reflecting statement has the effect of decreasing the emotional reaction of the other person. You may choose to reflect not only feelings, but also words and actions. A few examples are, “I can see you’re upset (emotion); I heard you say, ‘Oh great! Now what?’ (words); or 'I noticed you didn’t say anything in our meeting (actions).'  Validate them with reflections.

4.     Follow with a question. Asking a question after making a reflecting statement is asking for the meaning that is hidden behind their emotion. For example, you might say, “I can see you’re upset. What is going on?” Whether you are reflecting emotion, words, or actions, try to discover the meaning behind reaction by asking questions. Search for deeper meaning.

5.     Ask questions. If an emotional person has enough presence of mind to answer your questions, the thinking required to answer your questions physiologically moves them out of the emotional center of the brain and into the logical-rational functioning regions of the brain. The more questions you ask and the more questions they answer, the greater the likelihood that their emotional intensity will diminish. Ask questions to restore rationality.

6.     Do something physical. If a person’s defensiveness is not diminishing, try climbing a few flights of stairs or going for a walk to find a quiet place to talk. Moving or doing something physical changes the brains circuitry from supporting the person’s emotional state to the physiological demands placed on the brain by the person’s physical movement. Increase physical movement.

7.     Get the person to tell their story. If the person feels comfortable enough to answer some questions about what is happening, they may tell you their story. Listen to what they are telling you and try to identify what they wanted or expected and didn’t get. Everything they tell you represents something that they wanted and didn’t get or they would be mentioning it in their story. If you are in doubt about what they wanted or what violated their expectations, ask them.  

8.     Identify what they value. What is important to the person is discovered by asking the individual what they wanted and why. Their response to the “why” question will tell you what is important to them. For example, if you asked what the person wanted and why, they might have responded by stating, “I wanted to make sure that I met your deadline because you promised the client it would be done on time.” Notice that the value stated is about keeping the commitment to the client. Once you think you have understood, summarize what you think you now understand. This will demonstrate your willingness to clarify your understanding of what is behind their expression of emotion.

9.     Excuse yourself. If all of the above doesn’t work, they may be too emotional to talk rationally. When people become really upset, their brain may be flooded with a number of chemicals that prepare them for fight or flight. When this happens, it may take up to 48 hours for the effects of these drugs to wear off. Don’t make your inability to hold a rational conversation about them, make it about you. Tell them that you have another commitment that you have to keep, and then excuse yourself. You could even make it about yourself by stating that you need to think through the issues for a while before continuing the conversation. Excuse yourself and leave.

10.    Apologize. If you find out that you said or did something that the other person took negatively, apologize. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend to create offense. We know that offense is often taken where none is intended. Own your part and apologize for your behavior.

Having feelings and expressing your emotions is part of being human. Sometimes others’ feelings will get the best of them making it impossible to rationally continue the conversation. Learning a bit about human nature and the steps you can take to defuse defensiveness in others will go a long way to improving the quality of your conversations. 

What have you found useful to defuse strong emotion in conversation?

For additional tips, watch the Conversational Recipe: Handling Emotional Reaction.