Why Do People Become Defensive? Six Factors That Influence Defensiveness

Recently I held open office hours online to answer questions that people had about emotional intelligence. By far the most frequently asked question was, “Why do people become so defensive?” Perhaps the easiest way to understand defensiveness is to understand what makes each of us defensive. What might lead me to become defensive may not cause the same reaction in you.

Years ago while I was teaching a leadership development session, I encountered a participant like no one I had never experienced before. As the session started, he took out a small portable printer, which he attached to his laptop. As we discussed each topic, he searched online for articles that either supported or challenged something I was teaching. During breaks he would present me copies of the articles he had found.

I didn’t mind that, but he also interrupted me and the other participants during the session to interject his opinions. He continued to be both disruptive and confrontational throughout the workshop. As my frustration with him grew, I found myself responding to him in a negative way. I approached him privately at the next break and asked him to be more sensitive and respectful to others. He continued his disruptive behavior until the second afternoon, when a group of participants reached the end of their rope and threatened to force him to leave the workshop if he didn’t stop. That did it. He didn’t say another thing.

I clearly became defensive in this situation, resulting from this man’s outward disrespect for me and the other participants, even after I asked him to curtail his behavior. It seemed like he was more interested in drawing attention to himself and his expertise rather than contributing to the learning experience.

We will all have experiences where we feel defensive, or we will encounter someone who is. Here are six factors that can help us understand why a person may become defensive.


1. Threat. Some people are threatened by the position or authority of others in the organization who are in a management or supervisory role over them, especially by an individual who may have power to control their work life and experience. Sometimes the unspoken threat that accompanies an unaware leader is based on a person’s or team’s history with that individual. Once an employee has been belittled, demeaned, or threatened—or perceives that they have been—they anticipate that the unpleasant experience will happen again and tend to be on guard against it.

What to Do: Recognize that when people feel threatened,they will avoid eye contact, turn away, refuse to speak up, push away, or avoid others and disengage. Be patient with them. Express interest in their ideas and continue to invite them to share their views. 


2. Closed-mindedness. This characteristic can arise whena person has been made to feel “less than”or hasbeen criticized for what they think. Both experiences often solidify people’s thinking. Because our experience gives rise to what we think, anything outside the realm of our experience tends to be categorically rejected. In this situation, resistance to the experience and ideas of others is difficult to overcome. On some level, the rejection of differing ideas is a form of self-protection to avoid confronting the possibility of being wrong. 

What to Do: When someone seems to be closed-minded, begin to understand their position and experience by asking questions and listening to their responses. During this process, you must be fully present and patient with the person. The more you ask and listen, the more respect and rapport will be increased. Once rapport has been established, gently tell the person that you have had a different experience and ask for permission to share that experience. When you finish, ask them what they think about what you have shared. If they express no desire to understand your perspective, be patient, wait for another opportunity, and keep trying.


3. Real and Imagined Dangers. This factor of defensive­ness is partially tied to the notion of threat. When we don’t have all the information about a situation, we often interpret it in the worst possible way. Then, to complicate the situation, we project negative outcomes into the future with no real evidence that they will ever occur. When we perceive a negative outcome, we automatically act to defend ourselves.

For example, if you ask a person to do an analysis of some financial numbers for you, they might respond by saying, “You know I am not good at numbers. Couldn’t you get someone else to do that?” Understanding that they are facing an imagined danger, you will realize that mentally they are projecting that they might do a poor job and are looking for ways to minimize the impact of their imagined poor performance.

What to Do: Look for the positives hidden behind a person’s negativity. A negative statement or defensiveness is really an expression of the person’s values—what is important to them. If you can get the personto talk aboutthe reason behind their defensiveness, you will learn about the importance a person places on certain issues. This will help you understand how to best address their real or perceived dangers. 


4. Conflict-adverse. Most people do not like conflict. They dislike the emotion, drama, and negativity that is present in conflicted situations. At the first signs of disagreement and tension, many people either shut down entirely, completely avoid the situation, or match fire with fire. In any case, it becomes difficult to resolve a conflict because many people lack the skills required to dissipate strong emotion and talk through what is important to both parties. 

What to Do: Stay engaged; don’t run from the negative “hot” emotion. Stay calm. Remember: a person’s negative emotion says more about them than it does about you. Ask for more information, such as, “What do you want and why?”

It is the why that is most important because their why is really an expression of their values. Once you understand a person’s why, you are more likely to find a solution—conflict resolved!


5. Image. People don’t like to be seen negatively. If there is a chance they will be viewed as incompetent, negative, uncooperative, or unsupportive, they will respond defensively when confronted. This is a common reaction—of course we want to put our best self forward. Any time someone comes along with feedback to the contrary, it is natural that we attempt to discredit or counter what that person is saying.

What to Do: If you must provide feedback to someone, do it privately. Provide data or examples of an issue that you need to resolve. Ask questions to explore the person’s perspective. Summarize your understanding to establish mutual clarity between you and the other person. Create a plan to address what results you would like to improve or change.  


6. Embarrassment. When someone is embarrassed by what another person says or does, they may respond defensively. Embarrassment often occurs because of incorrect beliefs a person hasabout themselves,such as worthlessness, fear of abandonment, failure, or scarcity of positives in their lives. For example, a person who possesses a mindset of scarcity may tell themselves that they are excluded from an abundance of love, money, friends, opportunities, etc.  

What to Do: If you are the person feeling embarrassed, then you will want to explore the source of your feelings. Understanding the triggers for your feelings will allow you to challenge the accuracy of those feelings. First of all, you will want to distinguish between reality and your assumptions. If you have no real evidence or facts to support your assumptions, then you know you need to revise your thinking. If you do have facts to support your assumptions, this will still force you to challenge the accuracy of your feelings.

If you notice that a person is embarrassed and is starting to become defensive, you might want to explore the situation and see if you can identify what they are thinking about themselves. If you can do that, then you can counter any perceived assumptions with the facts. It is important to be supportive, honest, and sincere with a person who may become embarrassed, whether you feel that embarrassment is justified or not.

We will all become defensive at some time. Understanding the basis for your defensiveness will allow you to gain control of your feelings and make a choice about how you want to respond. Attempting to understand the defensiveness of others will keep you from taking their behavior personally and place you in a position to react rationally so that the emotions of the moment will not negatively influence your interactions.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, "3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence."

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.