Defensiveness is often the result of poor communication, stress, anxiety, or simply someone having a bad day. Developing a better understanding of why the people around you are defensive will help you avoid conflict inside and outside of the office. Learn what causes defensiveness, what to do when people get defensive, and how to deal with a defensive person in your workplace.
You’re probably no stranger to defensiveness. It can come in all shapes and sizes, from clients to employees to coworkers to managers. Working side by side with a defensive person day after day can be taxing, and it may make the prospect of going into work unappealing and uncomfortable. So, what makes some people so defensive, and what can you do about it?
Defensiveness at Work
Managing defensive employees can make delegating work a challenge, and it may seem like just asking someone to perform a task can result in awkwardness and hurt feelings. If you find this happens a lot, consider why an employee might be reacting defensively. Do they feel overworked? Did you just ask them to perform a different task five minutes ago? Could they feel you always single them out for certain tasks or responsibilities and not their other coworkers?
When giving feedback to defensive employees, be sure to highlight what the employee is also doing well, and always frame the feedback in a positive light. Give the employee room to express their own feelings about their performance, and strive to consider their opinions with sensitivity and understanding. Not everyone likes to be singled out, and certainly not to be criticized.
Feeling attacked at work leads to an unhealthy work environment for everyone—employees, managers, owners, and owner’s dogs included. If a coworker reacts with hostility to a suggestion or comment you made, before reacting defensively yourself, consider why your comment elicited that reaction. Did you consider your coworker’s communication preferences before speaking with them? Were you too blunt? Or on the flip side, were you too indirect? Did you ask them something about their personal life they may not be comfortable sharing?
It’s also important to consider that your coworker may just be having a bad day, and they’re feeling defensive for reasons that may have nothing to do with you. If this is the case, give them the space to process their feelings on their own terms.
Being defensive at work as a manager causes a chain reaction throughout the entire workplace. Employees won’t know who to turn to if they have a problem or if they need to ask a question. This can be a very stressful situation for employees. If an employee needs approval before handling a situation for a client but they are afraid of upsetting their manager, work stalls, and productivity goes out the window. People will begin to dread coming into work for fear of being reprimanded according to their manager’s whims, resulting in a hostile, awkward, nervous, and most of all, unproductive environment.
As a manager, it’s important to be mindful of the impact your defensiveness can have on your team. Do you want your coworkers to feel as though they’re always walking on eggshells around you? A manager’s job is to ensure day-to-day tasks operate smoothly and efficiently, and if you’re the root cause of a hostile and unproductive work environment, you’re not doing your job.
Defensiveness Psychology: What Causes Defensiveness?
Learning what makes a person defensive will help you understand why an individual reacts in that way to small talk, friendly suggestions, or constructive criticism.
If a coworker reacts defensively to something you’ve said, it’s likely because they feel that you have criticized or embarrassed them in some way. You may feel that you were being perfectly polite and haven’t said anything to warrant a defensive response from a coworker, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have a say in whether or not you have offended someone.
An individual could be defensive for a number of reasons, and being sensitive to their communication styles and unique needs can help you understand the source of their defensiveness. Learning more about how your coworkers prefer to communicate can help you understand how to address issues with them in a positive way, leading to a trusting, comfortable, and productive work environment for everyone.
How to Deal With a Defensive Person
Consider Why Someone is Defensive
What’s the real reason for defensiveness? It won’t always be apparent right away, but the best way to tackle defensiveness is understanding where it comes from. Defensiveness is most often the result of someone feeling like they have been called out or criticized. Is it possible you were too direct with a coworker? Could they feel your request or comment was hypocritical? Think back. Do you often single this person out?
Getting to the root of the problem will help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Hopefully, you can leverage this understanding and keep it in mind whenever you make a similar request or comment to your coworker.
You may not be able to pinpoint why someone is being defensive, and that’s okay too. In some cases, they may be going through something in their personal life that’s completely separate from you.
Don’t Return Defensiveness
Meeting defensiveness with defensiveness creates a never-ending cycle that will erode office trust and morale. If someone else is being defensive, don’t return it back. It’s never a good idea to escalate a conflict. If a coworker responds defensively to a comment you made, apologize, and leave the conversation, at least for the time being. If you need to broach another topic later on, acknowledge your part in the disagreement, and focus on the future.
Understand Communication Preferences
Deciding how to communicate with a defensive person depends on their preferences. Work personality tests like the Enneagram and DiSC will help you understand the communication preferences and personalities of the individuals you work with. Everyone is different, and everyone approaches a situation in their own unique way. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to communicating with coworkers, employees, or managers.
Taking the time to learn more about your coworkers will help you get to know them better, which makes it easier to avoid conflict. You may learn that someone you work with every day detests small talk, which is why they seem standoffish whenever you ask them about their weekend or the weather. Or you may learn that your direct, blunt style of communication makes some of your more sensitive and introverted coworkers feel like they’re being attacked, resulting in a defensive attitude.
Give Space to Process
Give a defensive person space to consider their feelings and actions. In the moment, their emotions are likely calling the shots, and they may feel like they’re being attacked even if that’s not your intention. This emotional volatility can quickly escalate a conflict, so removing yourself from the conversation or situation is best.
Don’t add more fuel to the fire; let it fizzle out on its own. Before you try to communicate, remember to take some time to reflect on your own actions. Could you have phrased something more sensitively or politely? If so, be sure to take responsibility for your part of the disagreement.
Never Call Out Defensiveness in the Moment
A conversation will go downhill fast if you call out a defensive person. Never point your finger at a defensive person and tell them they’re being defensive, and don’t descend to unhelpful comments like, “don’t take it so personally.” These quick jabs diminish your coworker’s feelings and paint you as insensitive.
Evaluate the situation in order to understand where the defensiveness is coming from. Calling someone out in front of others when that individual is already feeling defensive will only cause further tension and defensiveness.
How to Talk to a Defensive Person: Dos and Don'ts
- Try to understand why someone is defensive.
- Consider the other person’s preferred communication style.
- Give a defensive person space to process their feelings.
- Remember that everyone has bad days, and their defensiveness may have nothing to do with you.
- Tell a defensive person they are being defensive.
- Reply with your own defensiveness.
- Diminish or disregard someone else’s feelings.
- Force a conversation on someone who isn’t ready to talk.
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