Talking to someone always on the defense can seem impossible. Every talk turns into a fight; every discussion into a debate. It can be so exhausting you choose to avoid confrontation altogether.
But if you sweep enough junk under the rug, all you end up with is a lumpy rug. At some point, something’s got to give.
Luckily, learning to communicate with an overly defensive person isn’t unfeasible—it just takes a little practice.
Calmly State Your Intentions Up Front
To a defensive person, an out-of-the-blue conversation can seem like a surprise attack. Catching them off guard heightens their defenses.
Instead, give them a few seconds to brace themselves. A simple, “Hey, I want to talk to you about _____. I don’t want you to feel attacked or defensive. All I want is to tell you how I feel.”
Going on to say, “I know this might be awkward, but I think it’s important to discuss,” is another great way to break the ice. Few people enjoy a tense, serious discussion. Let them know that you are facing that discomfort together, not as opposing teams.
You might notice their hackles raised anyway, but at least you offered a preface to the discussion. This small step goes a long way to keeping someone open to communication.
Lead With ‘I’ Statements & Avoid Hyperbole
Once you initiate a discussion, it can be tempting to get everything out on the table immediately. But even if you have a laundry list of grievances, relationship experts suggest going slow.
“Going in with guns blazing or dumping everything you’re feeling onto your partner likely won’t go well,” couples and family therapist Tracy Ross, LCSW, told Well and Good.
Ease into the nitty-gritty. Start by using “I” statements. A general template is “I feel ____ when ____ because I _____.” Other effective “I” statements can sound like, “I think,” “I need,” “I want,” and “in the future, I’d like to ____.”
If at all possible, avoid “you” statements. You need to do this. You made me feel this way. This language alienates the other person, making them feel like they’re under a microscope.
It’s also best to ditch any hyperbolic language like “always” and “never.” You’re likely exaggerating to make a point, which happens to the best of us.
However, Ross explains that “the natural response in the other person is to find the exception, which can start them down a defensive rabbit hole.”
Don’t Forget To Include Yourself In The Conversation
Defensive people are quick to shift focus away from themselves and onto the other person. This can be hurtful and confusing, but it’s just another way for them to protect themselves.
“When you share pain with your loved one, that bright spotlight shifts from you to them. The defensiveness is a way to shift the spotlight back onto you, instead of keeping it on what really matters,” explained Jeninne Estes, family therapist.
So, while it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes the best option is to beat the defensive party to the punch. Own up to your part in the situation.
Relationship conflict always takes two. Still, a defensive person might not remember that in the heat of a guilt-ridden moment. Remind them that you’re there to solve the problem together.
Ask Questions & Stay Curious
Alternatively, you might not know exactly how you made them feel. Maybe you don’t realize the extent to which your actions (or inactions) caused this confrontation. Don’t guess; ask.
Moreover, keep asking questions until you understand them, suggested executive coach Bruce Roselle. “Using statements like, ‘Please tell me more about your feelings,’ or ‘Help me understand what upset you,’ can begin to attenuate a defensive reaction.”
When the other person responds to your questions, make sure you’re actively listening, too. “Be sincerely curious about their response,” Estes added.
Don’t Lose Your Temper & Know When To Walk Away
Defensiveness is a byproduct of our fight-or-flight response. Elevated emotions, yelling, and other signs of anger only aggravate this response.
As difficult as it might be, try not to lose your temper. “Put down that pitchfork and stay focused on the feelings of hurt underneath it all,” said Estes. If neither of you can calm down, then take a break.
“So long as you agree to come back to the conversation in, say, 20 minutes, that time alone can be just what a person needs to understand your intentions,” Ross explained.
You can’t fight a defensive fire with more fire. It’s crucial to know when it’s time to table the discussion for another time.
Remember Where Their Defensiveness Is Coming From
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, remember where this person’s defensiveness is coming from. Our own defensive natures can lead us to believe it’s a result of something we did.
But most of the time, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Defensiveness, Estes explained, is “rarely intentional. Rather, it’s a knee-jerk reaction that shields the person from guilt and self-doubt.”
Defensiveness can stem from a tough childhood or a traumatic past. Children can develop defensive behaviors to cope in difficult, unfamiliar situations. These behaviors then turn into bad habits in adulthood.
People who grew up with low self-esteem are also prone to defensive behavior. For those with poor self-image, confronting their shortcomings can seem catastrophic.
Brick walls aren’t built for no reason. Sometimes, the most defensive people are in the most pain. Stay patient, compassionate, and calm.
Eventually, with a little time and teamwork, you both should be able to dismantle those walls brick by brick.