Defensiveness: The view from the outside.

January 31, 2023

A mirror warns, "Objects may be different than they appear." A dinosaur peeks into the mirror

When working with defensiveness, it isn’t just with what arises within ourselves. Like a bird flying into a freshly cleaned windowpane, we inevitably bump into it out in the world oft when we don’t see it coming.

In the daze that follows, we find our feet; reflexively mirroring the defensive stance we face and reacting in our own way. This behaviour biologically bypasses conscious thought in our brains and, triggered by someone else being triggered, tends to unwittingly escalate a situation from nothing into…well, even more of a situation.

It’s not ideal.

How…why…what in the world just happened…? we can’t help but wonder to ourselves when the dust finally settles down.

So, what exactly happens to take someone from it’s-all-good to red-alert in no time flat? It’s a tricky question that aims to peer beneath the surface of someone’s actions. In past blog articles we’ve explored defensiveness a fair bit, but mostly through a focused look inward at how it manifests within ourselves in the competitive "game of life". When we turn our inquisitive gaze outwards to others however, there is a lot less information to go on and it is hard to discern the potential source of others’ defensive behaviour.

While every situation is different, there are a few defensive patterns to be aware of.

Let’s take a closer look at an example and try to figure out what’s going on.

Act I

Scene 1

SETTING: You’re in a meeting at work. Everyone is sitting around the boardroom table. Things are going fine – the reports are being analyzed and everyone is nodding in agreement about the team’s plan going forward.

YOU: noticing a discrepancy in the numbers being projected on the wall, you turn to your colleague running the presentation to interrupt, "Thomas, is this number accurate?"

THOMAS: swivelling around abruptly to face you, quickly retorts, "Stop attacking me!"

Everyone falls silent. There is an awkward energy in the room.


And just like that, SMACK – we’ve hit our proverbial windowpane of defensiveness. In the span of a moment, things suddenly went from smooth to sideways.

What exactly happened? Where might this unexpected response have come from?

There are three contexts that trigger defensiveness:

  1. Someone has been falsely accused and is defending their good name.
  2. Someone is guilty and trying to cover up.
  3. There is a grain of truth in the comment or accusation.

In the aforementioned example, can you determine which context your colleague Thomas is acting out of? It is not so clear. If he is innocent, he will act defensively. If he is guilty, he will also act defensively. And in both cases his response will look pretty much the same to you.

Illustration of two telephones with a squiggle in the cord. A chat bubble over one phone says "How are you" and the other says "RAWR!"

It’s one thing to look inwards with some insight into what’s at play, but when looking outwards it’s easy to fall into the dangerous zone of incorrect assumptions. Be mindful of this, and try to catch when you might be jumping to conclusions about the inner workings of someone else.

Shifting from a stance of defensiveness to curiosity, we can keep lines of communication open to try and bring clarity to the situation in order to avoid escalation. Ask questions to try and unpack where others are coming from. Try to hit pause before reacting in heated situations. Take responsibility for your role and any words / body language / actions that may have been misconstrued.

It’s worth noting that the inverse situation is also true: never assume that others can understand where you’re coming from when you also happen to behave defensively (and, going beyond this, in all of your actions). Again, try to be considerate of others by communicating what’s going on beneath your skin – not to absolve responsibility, but instead to give insight to your perspective and lend clarity to living in community with each other.

Either way, the only thing we can control is our own actions.

Understanding defensiveness is the first step in learning to better work with it because, like it or not, it’s an invisible hurdle that we’re all going to bump into now and again. Life is full of relationships, and different histories and perspectives overlap in this messy experience called the present. Feathers are bound to get ruffled from time to time, but there is always a choice in how we pick ourselves back up and face that which we bumped into. In this, it’s possible to not bump into the same invisible pane (pain?) over and again.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Join us in diving deeper into this (and more!) with our on-demand online course Dealing with Defensiveness. Its curriculum is the result of many decades of work in this space, and through it we offer proven techniques and exercises to better resource you for life’s inevitable conflicts.

Remember: conflict is natural – and we can work with it.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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